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Death goes to school, again

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I still remember the headline, “Death Goes To School.” Then, 24 years ago, that headline topped an overnight special edition covering a school-shooting spree in Winnetka, an unspeakable tragedy that began a turning point for more school security. I was a newspaper reporter and along with handfuls of staff, we reported on how Laurie Dann, a mentally ill 31-year-old, went on a rampage one day. She set fire in one school in Highland Park, IL and entered another school in Winnetka and shot 6 persons, killing second grader Nicholas Corwin before fleeing to a nearby home, taking a hostage and killing herself.

This was my home turf; Laurie Dann went to my high school and my family and friends had ties to both the Dann family and the victims. Though I was an observer, I mourned along with the community and like them, wondered why this happened.

The headline that day was coarse and controversial and we had many phone calls after it was published. Ironically, it was a forewarning of more unspeakable tragedies. 

A couple of years after “Laurie Dann”, I was a new communications director at a school district in suburban Chicago.  After a few weeks on the job, there was a call. A woman had seen a man entering the side door of the high school with a machine gun. This is a school that had 17 entrances and exits doors, most of them open and unlocked.  Within seconds, an announcement came on the PA and the 3,000-student building went on alert. Teachers slammed their classrooms doors shut, turned lights off and crouched with students under desks, in closets and bathrooms. SWAT teams of police dredged the classrooms and halls, and reporters and TV cameras swarmed outside the building. 

Nothing was found but a ticking Walkman inside a locker, which brought in another level of responders, a bomb squad. Yet, there was no evidence of an intruder and experts believed that the eyewitness must have been mistaken that day. 

I was no longer an observer of school tragedies. I was one of those cowering in the corner of a colleague’s office fearful for my life. Yet, absurdly, I tried to do my job – piecing together information from administrators and the police department and talking with the media. I, and others there were lucky.
Since those two events, I’ve seen the evolution of security in schools. 

No longer could you find a school with open side and back entrances. At the front door, volunteer and paid greeters were installed and visitors were asked to sign in. As the killings continued, many schools installed vestibules and buzzer systems and hooked up cameras trained on the front door as well as the halls, cafeteria and parking lots. 

Sadly, students learned intruder drills and added them to the routine of the tornado and fire drills. Schools and police painstakingly rewrote their crisis plans, adding horrifying elements about assault weapons, handguns and intruders. Floor plans of schools and video feeds of hallways became part of the police department’s arsenals. Some schools started hiring security experts and many more enlisted “resource” police officers, who had desks and office hours in the junior high and high schools.  

From the lessons of Columbine, many schools used a matrix designed by psychologists to identify students who were troubled, but overlooked, and who might be capable of such carnage.  Still learning from Columbine, schools instituted anti-bullying programs and tip lines.

And yet, after Friday’s massacre in Sandy Hook, there were more calls on what schools could do. Arm the principals, install bulletproof glass, put bars on the windows.  

I’m here to say schools have done their part. And, while schools should never be finished looking at new ways to keep their students and staff safe, I believe it’s now society’s turn. Let’s save some righteous anger for an American culture that produces these massacres, for how we in America treat mental illness and how we as a people legislate gun control. 

 


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