A School District That Plays It Safe

FORNEY - As SUVs and family sedans queue up in front of L.E. Claybon Elementary School, doors pop open and children pile out. The assistant principal greets them with a cheery "good morning."

But this morning a stranger stands nearby, watching. Within two minutes, a school secretary has confronted him. She wants to know who he is and why he's on campus. A few minutes later, a Forney ISD official shows up and asks him to leave.

As it turns out, he's a journalist, here to do a story about safety in the wake of school shootings that have left at least nine dead, including two gunmen, in two weeks.

As residents in Colorado, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania mourn their losses, other communities are rushing to re-examine their schools and search for safer solutions. School shootings make up less than 1 percent of homicides of school-age children, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But the occurrences continue to shock a nation. Since the 1999 Columbine High School shootings in Colorado, some school districts have explored stricter security policies, safer building design and the installation of high-tech equipment.

Forney ISD has taken a lead. Last year, Claybon was one of three schools that received a Texas Safe School Award, given to schools that address youth violence and create a secure campus environment.

Claybon's security measures don't appear extremely high-tech.

"Parents understandably look for some kind of guarantee of safety after incidents like we've seen the past week - something physical and tangible like a camera, a metal detector, key cards on the door," says Kenneth Trump, a Cleveland consultant on school security and safety.

'Highly alert staff'

But it is a "well-trained, highly alert school staff" who will ensure security at a school, he says. When Claybon staff members challenged the stranger within minutes of his arrival, they did the right thing.

"It's much harder to show the value of a staff knowing the kids, recognizing the early signs of disturbing behavior or spotting the stranger lingering in front of the school," Mr. Trump says.

Not all schools are as alert as Claybon. "I've been getting calls from dozens of reporters," Mr. Trump says. "Many say they've been walking through schools unchallenged."

That won't happen at Claybon, or any of the other eight campuses in the Forney district, says Donna Sweeney, who is in charge of emergency planning for the district. All employees, including substitute teachers, wear color-coded photo badges that identify the person and their role at the school. Colors are changed every year. Visitors and volunteers also wear badges. Students and parents are urged to keep an eye out for strangers.

During school hours, all doors except one are kept locked from the inside, says Dwayne Thompson, who oversees planning and construction of new schools for the district. The single unlocked door faces glassed-in school offices so staff can easily monitor who comes and goes, he says. Visitors sign in immediately and face a driver's license check. Only then are they escorted to their destination.

If some stranger does penetrate the building or there's some other emergency, such as a tornado warning, the school can go into lockdown, says Claybon's principal, Jeanne Deen, a 27-year veteran in education. The entire school can be emptied for a fire drill or locked down in less than two minutes, she says, and she knows. The school practices lockdowns three or four times a year and fire drills every month.

In a lockdown, students, teachers and staff retreat to a secure area behind locked doors. Only the principal, assistant principal and a counselor roam the halls. Classrooms can communicate by intercom or by means of a red or green card the teacher slips beneath the door. As Ms. Deen or her assistant check the hallways, a red card, signaling trouble in a classroom, is instantly visible. During the school year, four Kaufman County deputies are permanently assigned to school duty.

Mr. Thompson says the Forney district is studying advanced technology that would check visitors' driver's licenses against criminal databases in 48 states, then print out a picture ID of the person. The district also plans to install security cameras in most of its schools, he says.

Limited access

Outside the school, access to playgrounds is limited.

Assistant principal Scott Fisher is in charge of the school's "Go Bag," a large suitcase stuffed with first-aid supplies, two-way radio, flashlight, and student records, contact information, and parent pickup forms. If the school has to be evacuated for some reason, he says, the Go Bag goes along.

Ms. Deen is happy to show off other safety measures that helped win Claybon a Texas Safe School Award. Around noon a crowd of chattering 5-year-olds fills the tables in the cafeteria. "Watch," she says. A monitor holds up three fingers and almost instantly the room falls silent, as though somebody turned down the volume on a radio.

"If a little one is choking, you want to be able to hear it," she explains. "We can turn more than 600 kids off that fast."

She believes that kids as well as parents appreciate the sense of security that comes from a well-ordered environment. "We think that they feel safer. We think that they can think and learn."

Ken Lynch, a contractor, whose son Austin, 8, is a student at Claybon, says he is confident about the measures being taken.

"I'm not worried out here. They're pretty tight on security," he says. "The principal is always out in the morning."

Despite the safety award, Ms. Deen says, "We don't consider ourselves forerunners. We want to think that all schools are working on these same things."

Mr. Trump, however, points out that that is not the case. "The question is whether we're going to hit the snooze button and go back to sleep. Six months from now if we don't have an incident, will we still be concerned about school safety? Columbine tells us, sadly, the answer is no."