In the wake of a mass shooting at a Connecticut elementary school Friday, Charlotte-Mecklenburg School officials were reviewing safety procedures and school security while local charities and churches looked for ways to help those affected by the nation’s second-deadliest school shooting.
Officials are reporting that as many as 27 are dead after alleged gunman Adam Lanza went to his mother’s home, shot and killed her, drove her car to Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., where she taught, and shot and killed 20 students and six adults. Lanza, 20, committed suicide on scene, according to the Associated Press.
The tragedy raises questions about security at elementary schools across the country and in Charlotte. Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board chair Mary McCray said there are no police or security officers to monitor elementary school halls and access to those buildings is relatively open.
“Our schools have to be open for parents to come in,” McCray said. “You want to keep them as open and inviting as you can, but still you have to protect your kids.”
CMS schools have clear policies about what faculty, staff and students should do in a variety of emergency situations, officials said but declined to discuss specifics. They have school lockdowns, fire and tornado drills multiple times a year, McCray said, and CMS police are stationed at all area high schools and most middle schools.
But a tight budget makes it impossible to keep that kind of security presence at local elementary schools, the chairwoman said. And anyone can walk in the front entrances of CMS schools, she said.
Hallway signs point visitors to the front office for visitor badges, and school staff members watch for people who are in the building without those passes.
“Staff know that anyone in your building without a visitor’s badge, you immediately stop that person,” McCray said.
Experts on school security say that controlling access to schools is essential to keeping students safe.
In an ideal world, entry to schools would be controlled much the same way modern apartment buildings are, said Patrick Fiel, former executive director of Washington, D.C., city schools and an independent security consultant.
Visitors should be required to push a button and give a reason for being at the school over an intercom before being allowed in, Fiel said.
Annabelle Suddreth, executive director of A Child’s Place, wants to go over policies in CMS with a critical eye. About 26 staff members from the Charlotte charity, which aims to improve child education and fights homelessness, work in CMS schools daily, Suddreth said.
“What we’ve been talking about today is how we work with our local school system about how we make sure the safety measures are in place,” Suddreth said. “Are there doors unlocked that need to be locked? That kind of thing.”
Suddreth and other charity workers gathered as a group Friday morning to pray for the shooting victims.
“We kind of mourned for our children and the senselessness of the situation,” she said. Other area groups are grieving for those in Connecticut even as they make plans to do what they can to help.
Chaplains with the Billy Graham Rapid Response Team, including four from Charlotte, arrived in Newtown, Conn. around 5 p.m. They’re trained in emergency response and also provide emotional and spiritual support for those affected by tragedies, director Jack Munday said.
“We’ll help deal with the trauma and shock in the community,” said Munday, as he prepared to meet with emergency personnel in the Connecticut town. “It will never be normal again for them.”
Other organizations, like the Charlotte chapter of the American Red Cross and Myers Park United Methodist Church, were working out how they could help victims, too. Local Red Cross members planned to start by providing food and drinks for emergency responders in Connecticut, while the senior pastor of Myers Park Methodist said his congregation would try to reach out to those affected. The religious community has “a big role to play” in helping people across the country learn how to live more peacefully, the Rev. James Howell said.
And in the meantime, school officials will continue to consider their roles in being prepared for the worst.
“It’s a rarity that something like this happens on an elementary campus,” said McCray, who taught for 34 years before joining the school board. “It happened to kids who are very vulnerable.”
The Associated Press contributed.