LEWISTOWN - In the wake of a shooting that claimed 26 innocent lives last week at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, school districts across the country are reviewing and updating emergency plans and procedures.
At local schools, administrators are making every effort to reduce or totally eliminate any risk to students, said Juniata County School District Superintendent Richard Musselman.
"(A national emergency) renews that call to make sure that we're doing things the right way. We're taking it very seriously," he said. "The thing is, six months from now, two years from now, are we still going to be as vigilant as we are today?"
Musselman said the district is committed to keeping schools safe long into the future. Recent physical changes to school buildings include entry bells that must be buzzed to gain entrance to the building. Musselman said the bells alert secretaries to visitors who can be viewed on security cameras in the office before the door is unlocked.
The same precautions are taken in Mifflin County, where school district Superintendent James Estep said administrators recently revised and updated the school-wide emergency management plan.
"One or two years ago, the Pennsylvania State Police completed a district-wide safety audit for us and gave us recommendations which we've acted upon," he said.
Secure vestibules have been installed in the new Mifflin County High School and Lewistown Elementary School, he said. Additional security cameras and transitional security measures have been included in upgrades to older buildings.
Despite efforts to secure facilities, administrators recognize that risks remain even with physical barriers in place.
"I've heard it said that if somebody is committed enough to do harm, to the point where they're willing to give their own life to do harm, there's very little that's going to stop that," Estep said.
"Sometimes you can't stop things that happen, but what you can do is give people, give students, a tool," to recover control of the situation quickly, Musselman said.
Students and teachers in both districts undergo regular training to learn how to respond in emergencies. If schools are threatened, Musselman said buildings are locked down and classroom doors are locked. Teachers and students are trained to secure their area and place obstacles between the intruder and targets, he said.
In a letter to parents, Mifflin County Title IV Coordinator Steven Schaaf said children are not released from school and no unauthorized persons are admitted to school buildings during critical or lockdown situations. When students are dismissed, only parents or guardians designated on Emergency Cards may sign out students, he said.
Through the efforts of local school officials and cooperative law enforcement, both superintendents agreed that local schools remain a positive environment for students.
"I believe our schools are a safe place," Musselman said. "Does that mean that we're immune? Absolutely not. I don't think anyone is."
Maintaining the safety of public schools, but encouraging community support, is a difficult balance, Estep explained.
"Absolutely, on one hand, we work very hard to make our schools a safe place for kids," he said. "Sometimes that runs counter to the notion that schools have to be a welcoming place where people feel like they can come and be received with open arms."
The vigilant eyes and ears of students and parents are an important step in maintaining that balance, Musselman said.
"It does take all of us," he said. "If we hear something suspicious, hear something that possibly could happen, report it."
Musselman said students should feel comfortable reporting suspicious behavior to parents or teachers. Adults can report information to building administrators or contact local police directly.
Additionally, providing support to students who are struggling socially or emotionally can help prevent acts of violence in schools, Estep said.
"Parents can help make the schools safer strictly through the strength of the relationship with their children," he explained, adding that parents should seek assistance from experts when needed.
"I'd just like to reassure the parents of Mifflin County that, even before this latest incident occurred in Connecticut, I believe the district has continued to take reasonable steps to be very aware of school safety," he said.
Both administrators work in cooperation with local, regional and state police to ensure maximum coverage of the public school districts, and similar preparations continue at private schools in the area.
"We are not sitting back thinking that it doesn't happen to us just because we're a small, private school," said Thomas Getz, Juniata Mennonite School administrator.
Like the public schools, JMS monitors all incoming traffic and runs regular drills so students and faculty become familiar with emergency procedures, including lock-down situations. The school's crisis management plan is routinely updated in conjunction with the requirements of accreditation through the Association of Christian Schools International and Middle States organizations, he said.
The administrators and faculty of Mifflin County Christian Academy are also revisiting the school's safety preparations. Administrator Craig Todd said staff will meet to review recommendations for response to an active shooter, provided by the United States Department of Homeland Security.
"We have already met with law enforcement officials who have a complete layout of our building if any situations were to arise," Todd said.
In the event of an emergency at any local school, Schaaf made the following recommendations to parents:
Do not call the school. It is essential that telephone lines be kept open for emergency calls.
Do not try to reach children on their cell phones. Tying up or overloading the cell towers could prevent communication between administrators and responders.
Do not go to the school until officials report that it is safe to do so. The school access route and street entrance areas must remain clear for emergency vehicles.
Schaaf said information will be disseminated to parents through local radio and television stations, district websites and school notification systems, if the situation would arise. For more information about preparing and reacting to an emergency, visit the Department of Homeland Security website at www.ready.gov.