BY CAROL ROEHM
DANVILLE — The question of how safe Danville’s schools are has been in the forefront of many parents’ minds, particularly since the Sandy Hook Elementary School tragedy just two months ago.
“I had a grandmother come and see me right after Sandy Hook,” Superintendent Mark Denman said. “Providing the safest environment for the children is our No. 1 priority.”
School safety has been a main concern in Danville School District 118 well before Sandy Hook, however, dating back to the Columbine High School massacre in Littleton, Colo., in 1999.
“The Columbine incident taught us a lot of things and we learned a lot from it,” Ron Henton, director of buildings and grounds for District 118, said.
The lessons from then included securing the exterior entrances to all of the schools; installing an intercom, doorbell and camera system that requires visitors to identify themselves and wait to be buzzed in by school personnel; and adding phones in all classrooms.
“The high school was the first to have restricted access,” Denman said.
By the mid-2000s all of the district’s buildings had secured entrances with intercom, doorbell and camera systems, but Denman recalls that some parents initially were opposed to the security systems and locked entrances.
“Parents weren’t sure the intercoms, doorbells and cameras were needed,” he said.
Cameras also have been installed in the hallways and public areas of many of the district’s schools, including Danville High School; North Ridge and South View middle schools; Southwest Elementary, which was under construction at the time the cameras were being installed; and Kenneth D. Bailey Academy.
The high school alone has 55 cameras monitoring the hallways and public areas, Denman said.
Federal funding a couple of years ago allowed the school district to hire additional social workers, Denman said. Although funding has since dried up, the increased number of social workers has remained.
With school violence increasing nationwide, parents no longer question the security measures and, in fact, are requesting that more be done.
“I’ve had a parent or two that called after the Sandy Hook tragedy asking if we were going to put an officer in all of the schools,” Denman said.
A resource officer has been a part of the high school’s landscape since 2002 and, in 2011, resource officers were added at North Ridge and South View middle schools.
Just last week the Associated Press reported that school officials in Terre Haute, Ind., announced plans to post 12 armed police officers with full arrest powers inside all of the city’s schools. The annual cost of the measure is $353,000, with the Vigo County School Corp. splitting the cost with the city the first year.
Denman, however, said “there’s been no recommendation” to add resource officers in Danville’s elementary schools.
“Since the Sandy Hook tragedy, Public Safety Director Larry Thomason reviewed our safety plans, which he thought were well-thought out,” Denman said.
Thomason agreed. “Each school has developed their own safety plan. They’re in order and they keep them up to date.”
Shift officers now make periodic visits at the elementary schools, and Sheriff Pat Hartshorn has visited Southwest Elementary School, which is outside Danville’s city limits.
Safety isn’t convenient
Since Sandy Hook, Henton said the staff and teachers at all of the schools have been reminded repeatedly to make sure the exterior doors to the school buildings are shut and locked.
“We tell them ‘do not prop the door open anymore, and don’t leave doors unlocked,’” Henton said.
“We just can’t take a chance anymore,” he said. “When it comes to the safety of the children, I’m sorry if it’s not convenient.
“A lot of times, to be safe means it’s not going to be convenient. You have to change your behavior,” he said.
In mid-January, the Danville Police Department orchestrated a crisis response drill and “active shooter” training for District 118 faculty and staff on a Saturday at South View Middle School. Local law enforcement planned and scheduled to provide the training long before the Sandy Hook tragedy occurred.
“Everyone is on board and they understand the mindset and how the police will react if such a situation should occur here,” Thomason said of the district staff after participating in the two- to three-hour event. “It opened up some eyes.”
Henton was one of 80 district staff members who participated in the drill and training.
In one of the mock scenarios he participated in, Henton was a student in a classroom when a gunman enters the school and runs down the hallway, looking for an open classroom.
Before the drill, Henton said he showed the woman portraying the teacher how to lock the classroom door, which locks from the outside with a key, as do all classroom doors in District 118.
He showed the teacher two or three times that the key needed to be turned to the left to lock it and then the teacher just had to pull the door shut behind her. The teacher practiced what Henton told her and had no problems locking the classroom door ... that is, until the mock scenario unfolded.
“People don’t take into consideration the adrenaline that kicks in,” he said. “Things happen so fast.
“She couldn’t remember which way to turn the key and when she shut the door, she had left the key in the door.”
Thomason said that particular situation illustrates why training and preparedness is so important.
“That’s why we have repetitive training,” he said. “The adrenaline takes over in a stressful situation.”
Thomason added that because of what happened to the teacher during the mock scenario, she is unlikely to forget how to the lock the door again.
“They will go over it again and again in their heads and learn that skill, so to speak, themselves,” he said.
The outcome of the training also reinforced the need for new locks that Danville teachers can lock from inside the classroom without stepping out into the hallway.
“Initially, we’re looking at Columbine locks and two other styles of locks,” Henton said.
With a Columbine lock, a key locks the door from the outside, as well as locks it from the inside of the classroom.
Henton said more than 400 locks will be replaced districtwide, with approximately 170 of those locks being at the high school.
“It’s mainly classroom doors,” he said.
Also, when there is an emergency situation, confusion with directions can set in quickly.
“When there’s an incident, giving directions can be confusing,” he said.
That’s why all the doors at the schools — exterior as well as interior — are being numbered.
Starting with the newly renovated South View Middle School, “we numbered all the doors. On the outside, the numbers are up high, but on the inside they’re down low,” Henton said.
The numbers are low on the interior doors to improve visibility of them because smoke during an emergency situation could obscure numbers if they are higher up on a door.
“It’s mainly for emergency situations,” he said. “We’ve numbered the doors that way at South View, North Ridge and now East Park. Eventually, we will do that to all of the schools.”
Eventually, lighting in all of the school parking lots will be improved and the old intercom systems in all of the school buildings will be upgraded “as the budget allows,” Denman said.
“It will be a gradual process as funding allows.”
Although the district’s current phone system has a paging feature on it, Henton said rustling sounds or background noises could obscure the message that’s being broadcasted.
The old intercom systems — some of which are the same age as the schools — are being tested. While the PA system still works well at the high school, that’s not the case at all of the schools.
“The existing systems cover the hallways, but some of the speakers don’t work anymore in some of the classrooms or can’t be heard in the gymnasiums,” Henton said. “We have to investigate which classrooms have speakers that work.
“What we’re finding out is that the whole systems are going to have to be replaced.”
To be certain, safety in the school district is an ongoing project.
Henton said he soon will attend a seminar on “threat-resistant products” hosted by Bacon & Van Buskirk glass company.
“We’ll continue to make changes and stay on top of things,” he said.