In the wake of last year’s mass killings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., school safety has been a resounding issue in many communities.
Kentuckiana school districts are among them and while some schools have improved school security, local leaders say the effort will require community involvement.
On December 14, 20-year-old Adam Lanza went on a killing spree leaving 20 students and six adults dead. Since then state and congressional lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have been pressured to reconsider gun laws.
But how has been up for debate.
“We’re all looking for what we can do to make our schools safer and we’re all looking for that—no pun intended—magic bullet. It doesn’t exist,” Louisville Police Chief Steve Conrad told guests of the Louisville Forum Wednesday.
Conrad was responding to comments made by National Rifle Association officials, who after the Sandy Hook shootings said armed guards should protect students at every school.
Joining Conrad to speak on school safety was Dewey Hensley, chief academic officer for Jefferson County Public Schools and Ramona Johnson, CEO of Bridgehaven Mental Health and chair of the Kentucky Mental Health Coalition.
Hensley agrees that arming school officials is not the right response and says it sends the wrong message to students.
Instead, the district is looking at school safety through two lenses, he says. The first is the environment–ensuring all schools and students are prepared for certain events.
“That is, in some ways, the easy way to view it, the easy perspective,” says Hensley.
The second lens is cultural.
“It’s the lens of our ability to create a culture in our school where every single kid feels he or she belongs,” he said.
Hensley points to student response teams that JCPS has adopted to act quickly when behavioral issues arise in the school environment.
“If we have the ability in our school to ensure that every single kid feels he or she belongs, to have systems in place, like our new student response teams, and like some of the other things we have in place, to wrap certain services around individual kids that have great need so they believe and feel that they belong, we think we take a real important step to having a safe culture,” Hensley says.
Further having a working relationship with police and local organizations will help the school district respond appropriately, he says.
Following the Sandy Hook shootings, JCPS has taken a second look at their response to school safety. All schools’ safety plans are being analyzed and Hensley says if they need updating the district will hopefully receive help from the Kentucky Center for School Safety.
Greater Clark County Schools recently updated its security at all schools. Like JCPS, all visitors are now required to have picture ID and be buzzed into the building through the schools video intercom. Officials say the cost to install the system over winter break was around $19,000.
Also, classroom doors must now be locked, and intruder drills will be held more often, officials said.
But Chief Conrad says the solution to violence in schools is going to require the community’s involvement as well as school preparation. It echoes his response to violent shootings in West Louisville last year that resulted in the city’s Violence Prevention Task Force.
Students play a critical role in school safety too by following the rules and reporting suspicious behavior, but schools need to provide students the means to help, Conrad says.
“It’s important that the schools have a way for you to do that safely so you don’t have to worry about retribution or somebody fussing at you because you’ve reported something that doesn’t feel right or look right to you,” he says.
Conrad says there are 22 Jefferson County schools that have school resource officers that offer physical protection and that offer schools the chance to form a relationship with local law enforcement.
But, by Conrad’s estimate, arming officials at every school could cost over $17 million and it’s not proven to work.
Ways the community could step up include participating in after school or mentor programs, he says.
According to some reports, Kentucky state lawmakers said they don’t expect stricter gun laws to be introduced this legislative session, but laws allowing teachers to carry firearms could be.
Kentucky is among the states with the lowest score provided by the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. The commonwealth doesn’t have assault weapon bans and doesn’t require state licenses or permits for gun purchases.
Further the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence says in 2009 Kentucky had the third highest rate per capita of exporting guns used in crimes.
Kentucky Fourth District Congressman Thomas Massie recently filed federal legislation this year that would repeal gun free zones in schools.
Last year Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear signed several bills last year that soften gun control in the state. One prevents cities from passing stricter gun laws than the state.
However, Beshear has maintained the gun law debate should happen at the national level and should include several faucets like mental health in the conversation.
Some state leaders aren’t waiting for federal change. Gov. Andrew Cuomo, D-NY, is pushing for an aggressive ban on assault weapons in his state.
President Barack Obama has created a task force led by Vice President Joe Biden that will present recommendations for gun safety by the end of the month.
Beshear told WFPL last month that he is keeping an open mind about the gun control issue.