How to Make Schools Safer

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Nickel Mines, Pa., is not just a small, rural town where bad things rarely happen. It is a place, steeped in Amish culture, where peacefulness and spiritualism are nurtured. When big-city dwellers daydream of somewhere far from the high-intensity stresses — and perceived dangers — of the megapolis, it might be a place like Nickel Mines that comes to mind. Surely that's one of the reasons that America was so shaken this week, when five children were executed in Nickel Mines' one-room schoolhouse.

Incidents like this would be deeply distressing no matter where they occur. But with similar deadly school intrusions in Wisconsin and Colorado in the past few weeks, many parents worry that this is a growing crisis, even if statistical trends regarding school shootings do not necessarily support the idea that this is a problem on the rise. Perception counts — and the perception of schools as safe havens is eroding with each new incident. Making matters worse for parents is the feeling of helplessness in the face of what's seen as a new threat to their children.

So, what to do now? In my view, the most effective antidote to the sense of anxiety and helplessness is a meaningful plan of action. The process must start with accurate, balanced information that is neither hysterical nor overly sugar-coated. Let's start with what we know.

It is not just deranged individuals who can invade a school and threaten our children. In the world of international terrorism, children and schools are considered soft targets, providing high visibility for terrible acts that enrage and demoralize civilized communities. Just two years ago, this reality was confirmed when Chechen rebels invaded an elementary school in the remote Russian city of Beslan, killing more than 150 children and an equal number of teachers and other adults.

The problem is that access to schools almost anywhere in the world is, by the nature of these institutions, relatively easy. Schools are supposed to be places where parents entrust officials to oversee the development and education of their children, not pen them in. Traditionally, openness is unfettered by fear of physical or emotional violence. Turning our schools into armed fortresses would be counterproductive, unrealistic and, for the vast majority of our children, entirely unnecessary.

Still, the federal government's response to concerns about school security has been dismal. In fact, since 2003, federal funds to improve security in our schools have been severely cut back, with fewer than 2% of the nation's school districts having received emergency-response grants from the U.S. Department of Education.

The good news, though, is that we can develop prudent, home-grown strategies that make sense, without turning schoolyards into armed camps. Here are commonsense steps that should be taken now:

— Points of entry to schools and school grounds should be limited and controlled, staffed by an adult trained to determine if potential visitors belong there or not.

— Wireless panic alarms could easily and inexpensively be made available in every school, especially for those responsible for access control. If a situation warranting concern arises, an alarm could be sounded to simultaneously alert the school and local law-enforcement officials.

— As backup, schools also should have strategically placed telephones for making 911 calls.

— Schools need well-designed disaster preparedness plans that are familiar to staff and students and that have been practiced regularly.

— Relationships between school officials and local law-enforcement and first-responder agencies need to be established long before disaster strikes. Response protocols should be clear and understood by all parties.

— Teachers and students need to become "situationally aware," meaning that they will notice — and report — behavior among their peers that seems concerning, or the presence of people who don't belong in the school at all.

Finally, parents have particularly important responsibilities in making our schools safer. They should talk to their children calmly and reassuringly about the true rarity of these horrific events. But parents should also be the main advocates pushing educators and elected officials to do whatever is necessary to improve the security of the nation's schools. This advocacy needs to take place in every community and be directed toward every level of government.

We will never have perfect systems that can prevent every conceivable act of violence in the nation's vast network of schools. But we can reduce the chances of the next Columbine or Nickel Mines by taking some basic actions now. And if these actions help discourage some terror organization from planning an American Beslan, all the better.

Irwin Redlener, M.D., the author of Americans at Risk: Why We Are Not Prepared for Megadisasters and What We Can Do Now (Knopf), is the director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health and president of the Children's Health Fund