Students who attended Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., returned to class this week at a different school, and under heightened security.
Families arriving at the former Chalk Hill Middle School, in the neighboring town of Monroe, were met Thursday by police officers who checked parents’ IDs. The parents, who were invited to stay with their children, later reported seeing officers around the school.
"I think right now it has to be the safest school in America," Monroe police Lt. Keith White said.
But Sandy Hook students weren’t the only ones to see officers in their hallways when they returned to school following the holiday break. Following the massacre at Sandy Hook -- where a 20-year-old gunman shot and killed 20 children and six staff members on Dec. 14 -- districts in Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Michigan and elsewhere have added officers on a full-time basis or started daily police patrols.
"Obviously, after Columbine and following other shootings, there’s always some heightened concern about security," said Richard Sem, a Wisconsin-based school security consultant. "A lot of school systems have done a lot to better plan for security and safety in the schools, but I still go to K-12 schools that are accessible during the day, that don’t have fully fleshed-out emergency plans."
Even when schools keep their doors locked, Sem said, they have to be diligent about looking for weak points: "propped doors to get out to the sports field, that sort of thing," he said.
"Just increasing awareness among staff and students that they have to be protective of each other and be vigilant," Sem said. "That also means working closely with your local law enforcement so they know the school layout, they know the plan. Most law enforcement departments are pretty attuned to school security but, again, not all. I’ve encountered some where they don’t really give it as much attention as they should."
In suburban Philadelphia, the Upper Merion Area School District is among the districts that have added officers to patrol schools in the wake of the Connecticut shooting.
"We met with [first responders] on the Monday following Connecticut to debrief about what happened and to talk about what other steps we could take," Upper Merion Superintendent Jane Callaghan said. "At that point, (Upper Merion Police Chief Thomas) Nolan suggested that we have a greater police presence."
Officials from Marlboro Township Public Schools in Monmouth County, N.J., announced on their website that armed guards will be placed "on the premises on a temporary 90-day basis, while discussions about the future security improvements are conducted," and that "no additional security actions will be implemented until there have been thorough discussions between administration and the Marlboro Police Department and subsequently approved by the Marlboro Township Board of Education."
In cities like Albuquerque, Baltimore, Dallas, Houston, Los Angeles, Miami and St. Louis, there are schools that already have armed officers on-site, according to The New York Times. As more schools call for such protection, there’s been renewed debate over whether it’s necessary. At least one former education secretary, William Bennett, seemed to cautiously support the idea.
"I’m not so sure I wouldn’t want one person in a school armed, ready, for this kind of thing," Bennett said in a Dec. 16 appearance on NBC’s "Meet the Press."
Bennett, who served under President Ronald Reagan said "everything should be on the table," including a possible assault weapons ban.
After the shooting in Newtown, the National Rifle Association reiterated its call for armed guards in schools nationwide, a stance that drew intense backlash from gun-control advocates and others who argued that adding more guns to schools is not the solution.
"Will you at least admit it’s possible that 26 innocent lives might have been spared?" NRA chief Wayne LaPierre asked in a December news conference. School security consultant Sem says that even the deadliest mass shootings last "usually three to five minutes, 10 at the tops."
The federal Government Accountability Office hasn’t conducted a thorough review of school safety since 2007, when it found that most school districts had emergency plans but could still benefit from additional federal guidance.
However, emergency plans from six years ago may need to be updated in some key ways. Not once in the 2007 report is text messaging mentioned. These days, many schools and governments use text message alerts for all kinds of emergency communications.
Back in Newtown, where residents are still coming to terms with the massacre that rocked their community, Superintendent Janet Robinson remained hopeful that students will be able to fall back into a routine.
"We will go to our regular schedule," Robinson said. "We will be doing a normal day."
This story contains material from The Associated Press.