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Talawanda School District weighs security options

By Chris Curme
On January 22, 2013

The mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, Newtown, Conn., has sparked a national conversation that the Talawanda School District has been having for years.

Talawanda School Board member Mike Crowder said that over the past year the district has been reworking its crisis protocol.

"The Sandy Hook incident didn't start Talawanda's discussion about safety," Crowder said.

The school district formulates its schools' emergency response plans around recommendations given by the Oxford Police Department. According to Chris Rhoton, vice principal at Talawanda High School (THS), these recommendations change in the wake of tragic mass shootings such as those in Newtown, Conn.

"We were contacted by the Oxford Police last school year," Holli Morrish, director of communication and public relations at Talawanda High School, said. "They wanted us to know we were operating under a post-Columbine plan, and recent events had indicated protocol had changed."

According to Crowder, the district's policy is now that children and teachers should exit the building in the case of an intruder, if it's safe to do so. Rhoton said that this strategy differs from the past protocol of remaining hidden in classrooms, and is a response to the Virginia Tech massacre in 2007. "[The VT shooter] was practicing for people lined up," said Rhoton, "He knew his targets would be on the floor, covered up."

Rhoton and Morrish also mentioned that administrators and select teachers at the secondary level have been going through ALICE (Alert, Lockdown, Information, Counter and Evacuation) crisis-training. Morrish said this program gives teachers more independence in how to deal with life-threatening situations.

According to English teacher Claire Squance, this more "hands-on" approach allows teachers engaging the assailant if necessary.

Morrish said beyond having an effective crisis plan and capable staff, the new high school building has security advantages provided by new technology.

"This building can be locked down from a cell phone," Morrish said.

From his office, where a surveillance feed from the 87 cameras in THS is saved and monitored, Rhoton can lock and unlock every single door in the school.

Crowder explained the purpose of the high school's buzzer system, where a THS visitor must first be identified, then buzzed into the school where the only accessible door is into the main office.

He said a similar system was installed five years ago in Kramer Elementary, 400 W. Sycamore St., which, beforehand, could be entered by anyone at any time of day. An unarmed guard was also stationed, according to Crowder, at a desk near the doors to escort visitors from the front door of the middle school to the main office.

Sandy Hook Elementary School also had a buzzer system and surveillance. This has sparked a national debate over whether schools should employ metal detectors, hire armed guards, police officers, or even arm teachers.

Morrish and Crowder have received fairly little communication from concerned Talawanda parents and citizens asking whether the district is considering any further action in response to the Sandy Hook shootings.

Metal detectors are not being considered, according to Rhoton. Talawanda High School and Middle School once had resource officers on the payroll, but those positions have been cut due to budget constraints.

Rhoton cited Butler County Sheriff Richard K. Jones' Friday press conference in which Jones called for schools to hire retired police officers, many of whom possess master's degrees, as substitute teachers.

"There's been no movement at all from the board after [Sheriff Jones'] announcement," Crowder said. However, he acknowledged there is ongoing discussion regarding the hiring of a resource officer despite budget constraints.

"The board will spend the money if we think that's essential for the safety of our kids," Crowder said. "Then we will go to the community and explain why we had to spend that money."

However, Morrish, a parent of children in the district, delineates professional officers and armed personnel. "It doesn't make me feel safer to think that teachers or staff members are walking around school buildings with guns," Morrish said. She said sees trained professionals as being different and believes them to be a valid option.

"I have a fundamental problem with putting a gun in a school," Crowder, also a Talawanda parent, said, "That's supposed to be safe zone."

All sources said that past a certain point, it is perhaps impossible to be fully prepared for an incident such as that at Sandy Hook Elementary. Rhoton often repeated that one cannot prepare for everything. He called parenting and the mental health system key factors of school tragedy prevention. While the events in Newtown did not change the Talawanda School District's approach toward safety, it certainly brought it to public attention. Whether the board decides to hire a resource officer, Crowder says he's never seen a situation where the well-being of the kids wasn't put first.


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