“The thing about Sandy Hook is they did everything right. ... All the safety measures were in place. [The gunman] shot himself into the building. He did everything a crazy person would do. The teachers did their very best,” said Dr. Martin Ringstaff, director of city schools.
Sandy Hook Elementary School personnel attempted damage control the minute the shooter was on the premises, Ringstaff said. Teachers and the school’s principal put the school on lockdown. Children rushed into classrooms where the doors were locked and lights turned off.
Cleveland teachers are trained to respond in the same way. Ringstaff described the situation as a “hard lockdown.” Teachers are in charge of moving students to relative safety. They are placed away from windows and in minimal visibility of outsiders.
According to Ringstaff, the education profession is one of few careers where the employees are trained for catastrophic events.
“You do not have time to pull your crisis manual off the shelf and turn to Page 26 to see how to respond. You either know it or you don’t,” Ringstaff said. “We do the drills periodically throughout the year.”
Catastrophic events include anything which would harm a student’s safety. Fire drills are conducted every month. Lockdown drills occur once a semester. Drills concerning bomb threats, suspicious hazardous material and severe weather are also in place.
Safety is a primary factor when schools are being built. There must be two exit routes for every school room. If one exit is blocked, then students have a second option. Most modern schools are built so visitors to the school are immediately directed to the front office. Cleveland High school, Arnold Elementary and Mayfield Elementary are examples of this design.
Decisions are made every day to ensure continued safety, Ringstaff said. Security software involving card scanners to enter school buildings is being used by CHS. School officials hope to install the software at every city school.
“That is what school safety is about — putting measures in place to stop people who are trying to get in and cause harm,” Ringstaff said.
The strongest defense against intruders is the school resource officer, according to Ringstaff. Some individuals believe SROs are not needed every day. As history has shown, it is hard to pinpoint when disaster will strike a school.
“We are so glad our city provides the school resource officers. We are allowed to have them day in and day out. I can only applaud that. Just imagine the impact on the proactive approach [to school safety],” Ringstaff said.
Sandy Hook Elementary did not have an SRO.
“An angry person would have more room to walk on without the SRO present. They really change the game,” Ringstaff said. “I do not want to play ‘what-ifs’ with Sandy Hook Elementary, but who knows what would have changed if they had had an SRO?”
School resource officers make sure to build relationships with students and teachers.
“They talk to kids in the cafeteria. They find out what is going on in their lives. They know who is dating who and who has broken up,” Ringstaff said. “Teenagers are hormonally driven and you have got to deal with that. Communication is the most important part to all of this.”
Communication includes parents, teachers, and friends telling school administration of situations involving bullies. A lot of school shootings are attributed to students who have been bullied, Ringstaff said. According to reports, shootings at Virginia Tech, Columbine, and Chardon High School in Ohio all had roots in school bullying. A report on stopbullying.gov stated 12 of 15 school shootings in the 1990s stemmed from the shooter being bullied.
“To me, parents have to be a part of the process. We need the parents to stop it, but we also need to be made aware. In today’s society, we have got to be proactive with communication. Many shootings have been stopped or thwarted because of communication,” Ringstaff said. “One kid tells on another and the weapon is apprehended.”
According to Ringstaff, education is about more than achieving high test scores. He said the school system takes very seriously the safety of students, calling it the No. 1 priority.
“Every parent should have the safe feeling in their heart, when they drop their children off at school, that they will be standing there when they pick them up [in the afternoon],” Ringstaff said. “We do everything in our power to make sure that occurs.”
Many of the administration and school staff have children who attend city schools.
“We are always finding ways to improve school safety. We do not get complacent with school safety. We take it very seriously,” Ringstaff said. “You cannot control whether a person will attack a school, but you can minimize their impact.”