Jan. 16 2013 12:00 AM

In the wake of the Newtown shooting, City Pulse visits 10 local elementary schools — and finds they're easily accessible


Nearly 400 students listened as a voice came over the intercom at Murphy Elementary School in Haslett on Friday afternoon.

“We’re going to practice a lockdown procedure. I want to reiterate that this is practice,” the voice said. “Your parents have talked to you about this and so have your teachers. The most important thing is to remain very, very quiet so you can listen to your teacher.”

Diane Lindbert, who delivered the directions on the intercom, has been the principal at Murphy for 10 years. Like all other elementary schools in the area and state, lockdown procedure drills have become just as common as tornado and fire drills. Rather than preparing for natural disasters, however, lockdown drills prepare students and faculty for the human-induced sort — like a school shooting. 

After delivering her message, Lindbert and a Meridian Township police officer walked the building, making sure the staff was following protocol. Overall, the regularly scheduled drill was a success, they said. 

It’s been just over a month since a school shooting in Newtown, Conn., where gunman Adam Lanza, armed with an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle, killed 20 first graders and six teachers. Since that tragedy unfolded, the nation has been immersed in a dialogue about gun violence, mental health and school safety. Two years ago, we were in a similar discussion following a shooting in Tucson that left six dead, including a federal district court judge and a 9-year-old girl, and a congresswoman in critical condition. It’s been nearly 14 years since two students at Columbine High School killed 12 students and a teacher.

Haslett School District Superintendent Mike Duda looks back on the Columbine shooting and the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The events “radically” changed the culture of school security, he says, and the Newtown shooting is bound to do the same. 

Since the Newtown shooting, the National Rifle Association has suggested placing armed guards in all schools. The group also supports arming teachers. Controversy and opposition soon followed both ideas. 

Following one of the worst school shootings in American history, what is security like in Lansing-area schools? 

Turns out it’s relatively easy to access these buildings.

Of 10 elementary schools in six different districts City Pulse visited in the past week, all of them directed visitors at entrances to check in at the main office; only one had a buzzer entry system to screen visitors; six had main offices with a limited view of people entering the building; and only at one did a staffer ask me for identification all week.

There were no armed guards stationed at any of the buildings. In one Lansing elementary school, a janitor let me in the back door — no questions asked.

Varying degrees of security

Elementary security policies vary among schools we visited in the Haslett, East Lansing, Lansing, Williamston, Okemos and Waverly districts.

A common security feature for elementary schools is a sticker, plaque or sign that usually states something like, “Parents and visitors please check in at the main office.” The signs are posted on or near the front entrance. The main office is supposed to act as a screening room for anyone entering the building.

At Williamston’s Explorer Elementary School, which holds about 390 third- through fifth-graders, it’s impossible for visitors to initially go anywhere other than the main office. Double-doors leading to the school hallways are locked by a buzzer system controlled by office staff. The rule is strictly enforced: A delivery driver emptying a truck full of cardboard boxes on Thursday required several phone calls so a side door could be unlocked. He had to be accompanied by a school maintenance employee.

Nancy Swart, interim principal at Explorer Elementary, said school security has become a higher priority over her 30 years in education — and not just in watching out for school shooters. On the day of the Newtown shooting, Swart said parents “came and went all day long” picking up their kids. She couldn’t say whether the district will change its security policies in the wake of Newtown, but she did say the school has “tight procedures” when releasing a student. Children are escorted to parents’ cars when they get picked up early and teachers monitor students as they get on their buses. 

Ken Trump, who has 25 years of experience handling school security, runs National School Safety and Security Services, a Cleveland-based consulting firm. He said the “first and best line of defense” for any school is a “highly trained and alert staff and student body.” 

“It is always the people first,” he said. “Any type of technology after that is only a supplement, not a substitute for it.” Trump said he’s consulted at schools in all 50 states and internationally. He was interviewed on Fox News, CNN and MSNBC following the Newtown shooting.

Trump said the “funnel design” in buildings like Explorer Elementary is common for newer facilities and is a “best practice” for monitoring who has access to the area. Renovations in 2007 allowed Explorer to add the funnel design, named as such because visitors are funneled to the main office and restricted from moving throughout the building. 

This brings us back to the check-in policy. At six schools, I could have scooted past the main office window and easily strolled the halls, unless a receptionist happened to be looking up from the desk at that moment. At one school, I waited for several minutes before anyone came to the front desk. Four of the main offices had large windows where the staff had an unhindered view of everyone coming into the building, like at Murphy and Explorer. However, principals interviewed for this story said that no one has the sole job of watching the front door. But the other six school offices were rendered nearly blind by only having a small window in the doorway to the office or by not having a staff person in full view of the front door. 

Principal Lindbert at Murphy Elementary said if someone comes into the building without checking in, they “run right after them.” Two other principals I spoke to at the Lansing and Williamston districts said they’d do the same. Yet Lindbert was the only staffer at the 10 schools to ask for identification when I visited to discuss its security policy. 

At Mt. Hope Elementary School in Lansing, I was allowed in through a back door as a janitor took out trash. I wasn’t asked who I was, where I was going or shown to the office. I was allowed in, no questions asked, and I made my way to the office from there. 

Nanette Kuhlmann, the principal at Mt. Hope, declined to discuss specifics about the school’s security measures, as did those interviewed from Haslett and Williamston. Principals in the Okemos, East Lansing and Waverly school districts did not respond to interview requests.

“We’re always making changes, whether it’s in our communication system, technology or our vigilance and the information we give out to parents. We’re always trying to improve ourselves,” said Kuhlmann, who’s been with the district for 10 years. She said visitors are supposed to be screened when visiting the building.

A key component of school security, especially when faced with a shooting threat, is the lockdown. The same drill that was practiced at Murphy Elementary is commonplace at schools around the state. An elementary school in the Lansing School District went into lockdown last week because of a domestic dispute between a student’s parents, Superintendent Yvonne Caamal Canul said. She said the Newtown shootings have brought school security to the fore. 

“Before Newtown I don’t know if we would have gone into lockdown,” she said.

Lansing is considering changes to its elementary security policy. Caamal Canul said the district is investigating the cost and feasibility of installing buzzer systems at all of its 18 pre-kindergarten through sixth-grade schools. The idea is to give teachers and staff keycards for entering the building, but all other visitors would need to be allowed in by the main office. 

On the NRA

The NRA’s controversial statements about placing armed guards in schools and arming teachers came a week after the Newtown shooting. During a Dec. 21 press conference, NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre blamed videogames, the entertainment industry and gun-free school zones for tragedies like Newtown. 

“Politicians pass laws for Gun Free School Zones. They issue press releases bragging about them. They post signs advertising them. And in doing so, they tell every insane killer in America that schools are the safest place to inflict maximum mayhem with minimum risk,” LaPierre said. “How have our nation’s priorities gotten so out of order when it comes to our most beloved, innocent and vulnerable members of the American family — our children. We as a society leave them everyday utterly defenseless. And the monsters and the predators of the world know it and exploit it. That must change now.”

All Michigan schools are gun-free zones. No guns are allowed in any public or private school buildings or on the property, though some legal experts say there’s a loophole in state law that allows those licensed to carry concealed pistols to “open carry” in gun-free zones. The legal theory is untested, though, and it depends on how a prosecutor would pursue the case if it arose, said Steven Dulan, a Second Amendment expert at Cooley Law School. Gov. Rick Snyder vetoed legislation three days after the Sandy Hook shooting that would have allowed gun owners with extra training to carry weapons in gun-free zones, but which also would have clarified that open carry is not allowed in schools. Snyder said he vetoed the bill because it didn’t allow gun-free zones like public schools, daycare centers or hospitals to opt out of allowing concealed carry. 

LaPierre announced what the NRA believes should be done: Put a police officer in every school in the country. He said it with the eloquence of a “Die Hard” one-liner. 

“The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun,” LaPierre said. “I call on Congress today to act immediately to appropriate whatever is necessary to put armed police officers in every single school in this nation.”

Police and education professionals quickly resisted the proposal. 

“To take an officer from off the road and to put them into the school is impractical and unrealistic,” said Robert Stevenson, executive director of the Michigan Association of Chiefs of Police. Because of funding challenges, 3,500 fewer police are on the streets of Michigan since Sept. 11, 2011, he added — so putting a cop in every school in the state, let alone the country, would be nearly impossible. 

“Columbine had guards,” said Kuhlmann, principal at Lansing’s Mt. Hope Elementary. “Even if they’re at the right place at the right time, it’s of little value. One officer is not going to provide safety and security to buildings this large. It’s not the total answer.”

A police presence at schools isn’t a new concept. The Lansing School District has three resource officers — one in each high school — and police regularly visit elementary schools throughout other districts.

Moreover, others say schools are still relatively safe places. Armed guards or locked doors can only do so much — Columbine had armed guards on site and Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown had a buzzer system in place to access the building. Yet tragedy ensued at both schools. 

Experts say schools are still safe havens for kids. 

“Despite the incidents at places like Columbine and Newtown, statistically our schools remain one of safest places to be,” said Stevenson, of the police chiefs association. “There are very few violent incidents — it just so happens that the few that have happened were horrific. It’s important for people to keep that in perspective.”

Anthony Kolenic, a peace and justice studies specialist at Michigan State University who studies mass shootings, said children are 225 times more likely to be the victims of gun violence outside of school than in school. He also said school shootings remain “staggeringly uncommon.” 

As for arming teachers, police, school administrators and educators interviewed for this story didn’t approve of the concept. But the idea is gaining ground in other states like Utah and Ohio, where reports say hundreds of teachers are taking gun-training courses. In Texas, the lieutenant governor has called for state-funded teacher and administrator gun-training programs to guard against school shooters. It is unclear whether Michigan teachers are turning out in droves for such training. 

Groups like the Michigan Coalition for Responsible Gun Owners believe arming teachers and staff is a good idea. 

“What we found in other states and many school districts around the country that do allow this is that there has never been a mass killing in one of those places,” said Dulan, who serves on the coalition’s board. “You don’t see mass shootings in places where they know people will be armed. The type of mind that chooses to commit these heinous acts targets places where they know people won’t fire back.”

Dulan said there was a “woefully underreported” situation in Pearl, Miss., that proves armed teachers can be effective in stopping a shooter. At Pearl High School in 1997, the assistant principal retrieved his registered firearm from his vehicle as a shooting was taking place and detained the shooter until help arrived. Dulan said the story backs the proposal.  

However, superintendents Duda and Caamal Canul are adamantly opposed to the idea of allowing guns in schools. 

“I think it’s just a horrendously dangerous idea and totally completely against the philosophy of a public school,” Caamal Canul said. “I don’t know if I can be more against something than that. That’s like saying give a gun to everyone who works in city hall, the library or the Admiral gas station. Then we’re in a police state, honestly.” 

When asked about the idea of arming teachers or school staff, Lansing Police Chief Teresa Szymanki said bluntly: “Absolutely not. That’s not their job. Their job is to educate.”