Learning how to cope and move forward from a school massacre

Littleton Public Schools security chief shares lessons learned through the eyes of the Columbine community


Perhaps one of the few communities in the U.S. that can identify with the grief being experienced currently by the families of the victims in the shooting massacre that claimed the lives of 20 children and six adults last week at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. are those of the areas surrounding Columbine High School in Colorado. On April 20, 1999, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold went on a shooting rampage at the school, killing 12 students, one teacher and wounding 23 others.

According to Guy Grace, director of security and emergency planning for nearby Littleton Public Schools, the Columbine massacre changed not just school security, but life in their community forever. "A lot of those families live in our communities, so Columbine is obviously influencing a lot of the practices we have put in place though the years," Grace said.  

Having witnessed first-hand the devastation that a shooting of this magnitude can have on a community, Grace said that moving forward is going to be difficult for years to come in Newtown.

"It’s going to be forever. Some people say that recovery begins as soon as the incident happens, but right now, there’s still a lot of shock and dismay," he said. "As I recall being in Littleton in 1999, there was a state of fear and a state of panic that lasted for many weeks and many months. Anything that happened in the community, any other tragedies were just magnified by the fact that that took place. Anytime that anniversary comes up, the community there is going to have to think about that anniversary and they’re going to always be watchful. April 20 for us in Littleton – this whole city and state – we’re always constantly on alert for that date more so than any other and that’s going to be the same for them."  

In the aftermath of last week’s shooting, Grace said that many parents have called to inquire about the safety and access control measures in place in Littleton.

"The situation in Connecticut is going to have a dramatic effect upon the things that we do in security and crisis management," he explained. "Right now, a lot of the parents are asking us to increase our barriers, initiating different types of access control such as buzz-in or making sure we put up steel doors and things like that. Basically, we’re getting a bunch of people calling in asking us to do things here and there, so we’re looking at those things. But obviously we’re evaluating and a lot of those (measures) cost a lot money, so we look at what we have existing in our physical security information management system, access control system and what we’re going to do to integrate that and different technologies."

According to Grace, crisis management plans at all schools have been influenced by the Columbine massacre for many years. Despite the horrific tragedy in Newtown, Grace believes that authorities have prevented many shootings in the years since Columbine, but now there is a new threat that schools have to take into account.  

"The good news is that schools have really done things with their physical security, but they’ve also concentrated on their crisis management and their emergency planning applications," Grace added. "What has happened is, those things are being thwarted, but now what we’re seeing is a threat from adults or people that have nothing to do with the school or have mental illness and they do come to the schools and those are the types of things we have to put up the barriers to stop."   

One thing that Grace said schools need to do is to make sure that they’re “awareness” is up with regards to any suspicious activity or people around a building as many shooters will often stake out a facility prior to an attack. While some people have immediately pushed for revised gun control laws in the wake of this shooting, Grace said that there has also been a lot of "armchair quarterbacking" about this incident and that there really needs to be a focus on crisis and mental health monitoring.

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