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After Sandy Hook: Reevaluating School Security Measures in Southeast Michigan

The horrific elementary school in Newtown, Conn. has put kids' safety and security measures top of mind. How are southeast Michigan schools reacting?

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A gunman armed with military-grade firearms made his way into Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. this past December, killing 26 people – including 20 first-graders, all just 6 or 7 years old.

It's an event that parents and school officials across the country, and here in southeast Michigan, reacted to immediately.

"We knew, of course, that all parents are going, 'Oh, my God, my kid's in a school,'" says Kay Neff, head of school at Dearborn Heights Montessori Center and two other area Montessori schools. By the afternoon of Dec. 14, parents were already contacting her, asking "good questions" about the school's security, Neff says.

She sent the parents of her preschool-age through eighth-grade students emails about the security measures they currently had in place to protect the students, and assured parents they'd evaluate the procedures, too.

"I responded really quickly," she says, making sure parents were informed and the children felt secure.

A different type of attack

Mass shootings have increased over the past decade. According to data compiled by Mother Jones and widely reported in the wake of the Newtown tragedy, there have been 25 mass shootings in the United States since 2006. Just this past year, in 2012, there were seven – including Newtown and the Aurora, Colo. movie theater massacre that occurred earlier in the summer.

Unlike the notorious Columbine High School or Virginia Tech shootings, the Newtown shooting was the result of an outsider, someone not a part of that school, coming in to cause harm.

It was not a school shooting in the way we've always known them, since the perpetrator was not a member of that school. The Newtown tragedy was a mass shooting where the target wasn't a hospital, a movie theater or a mall, but an elementary school. Of course, there is no acceptable place for a mass shooting, but this place – one filled with young, vulnerable and trusting children – was perhaps the worst target we could imagine.

With a peck on the cheek and a shout of "love you," parents cavalierly send their kids off to school each day with the expectation that they'll be protected and arrive home safely. And so it's natural that this tragedy in Newtown would challenge that assumption, bringing questions of school security and safety to the top of their minds and the agendas of local educators.

"Our awareness has been very heightened by this event, and we are seriously looking at all the options," Neff says of her Wayne County schools.

"I think school security will receive more attention," she adds, "be taken even more seriously than it already is, and become tighter in general as a result of the Connecticut event."

Evaluating school security

As Neff answered emails from parents such as, "Why don't you have your front doors locked all the time?" on the afternoon of the Sandy Hook shooting, she decided to be proactive.

"I (tried) to think it through, with the whole picture in mind," she says, adding that in a school, "there's no decision you make that doesn't affect someone else."

Neff assured parents immediately that the school would evaluate its security. At Dearborn Heights Montessori, a large school housed in an old public elementary school building, staff now locks three of the four main doors leading to the lobby, where a monitor watches the doors at all times.

"You're walking in past somebody sitting at the front desk," she says.

In the smaller schools she runs, they're discussing the installation of key fob systems, which would allow only parents with a special key to get into the doors. At Dearborn Heights Montessori Center, they're considering installing a buzz-in system.

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