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Wichita schools safety chief: ‘We are all vulnerable in some way’

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Friday, Dec. 14, 2012, at 5:58 p.m.
  • Updated Monday, Dec. 17, 2012, at 9:20 a.m.

Wichita school safety officials said they have numerous measures in place to protect children, but Friday’s mass shooting in Connecticut is “a horrible tragedy … many of us fear constantly.”

“Too often we hear schools, buildings, districts … say, ‘It won’t happen here,’ ” said Debbie McKenna, executive director of safety services for Wichita public schools.

“I think this is another sign, another indicator, that it can happen anywhere. We are all vulnerable in some way.”

Friday evening, the district sent a robo-call and e-mail to parents expressing sadness about the shooting and reassuring parents that student safety is the top priority. The call said the district’s crisis team would be prepared to support students on Monday, and that parents could send any questions to info@usd259.net.

Wichita Superintendent John Allison sent an e-mail to district employees Friday afternoon, urging them to stay focused on the day’s lessons and to “remain vigilant about our school and building safety procedures.”

McKenna said procedures such as limiting access to school buildings and requiring guests to sign in at the office and wear guest passes before visiting classrooms are crucial to safety.

Most Wichita schools that have undergone bond projects over the past few years have “secure entryways” with double doors that require visitors to pass through an office before entering a school’s main corridor, McKenna said.

Each school also has a crisis plan specific to that building, and students practice both lockdown and evacuation procedures, she said.

In addition, district safety officials and Wichita police work with building principals and others to “identify some of those aggressive kinds of behavior,” McKenna said, “those red flags in people that can alert us and let us know we may have some concerns.”

If a disgruntled parent or other visitor causes a ruckus in a school office or otherwise threatens a student or staff member, school security officers or police are called, McKenna said.

“It’s very incumbent upon the office staff to ask questions, to be aware of the behavior and then make sure that they’ve reported people if there is a concern,” she said.

That’s not always possible. Details about the shooting in Connecticut were still unfolding Friday, but early reports said the suspected gunman may have started his rampage in a school office.

“If they get through that particular setting, it’s a very difficult situation,” McKenna said. “If somebody is that determined, it’s difficult for us to stop that. We do not have people necessarily trained by our system … to tackle or defuse a shooter.”

Resource officers in Wichita high schools are armed police officers. But no other weapons are allowed on school campuses.

Shootings on college campuses and elsewhere have prompted some to call for measures that would allow professors or others on campus to carry weapons. McKenna said Friday that she wouldn’t support school employees being allowed to carry guns.

“I do not support weapons on our grounds,” she said. “We are no-weapon facilities, all of our sites, and that includes staff.”

McKenna said Friday’s shooting serves as a reminder that tragedy can happen anywhere.

“This is a societal issue, not a school issue,” she said. “It’s not something we can solve ourselves. It’s something we need the community support” to address.

Families can start by reminding children to report what they hear regarding possible violence, she said, using the district’s SpeakUp or CrimeStoppers systems. School employees should remember to question visitors who look out of place — or even ones who don’t — on school campuses.

But schools have to balance being secure with being welcoming and accessible.

“We want parents there, and relatives,” McKenna said. “That’s very important that they be part of the education process.

“That’s why we need responsible adults to comply with the rules and the procedures that we have. … We take the safety of our students, of our staff very seriously.”

Reach Suzanne Perez Tobias at 316-268-6567 or stobias@wichitaeagle.com. Follow her on Twitter: @SuzanneTobias.

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