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District 518 examines safety practices following Connecticut tragedy

Two sets of doors -- one outdoor and the other inside, accessible with front-office assistance -- must be passed through to enter Worthington Middle School.

WORTHINGTON -- "Visitors, please check in at the office," reads a sign posted in several languages at the main doors of most District 518 educational buildings. With last week's tragic event in Newtown, Conn., painfully fresh in administrators' minds, however, it isn't the welcome guests the schools are worried about.

"Visitors to our building are asked to come in the office, sign in and get a visitor's badge, and our staff members are instructed to stop anyone not wearing one and ask them what they're doing here," said Josh Noble, principal at Worthington's Prairie Elementary.

The importance of having parents, grandparents and other community members follow requested protocol upon entering a school facility was driven home when 20 innocent children lost their lives at Sandy Hook Elementary, and local school administrators hope visitors understand why the minor inconvenience is necessary.

"We need to know who you are and why you are in the building," stressed Worthington High School (WHS) principal Paul Karelis. "It's a procedure that was put in place for security reasons, and wearing a visitor's badge helps keep our students and staff comfortable and the integrity of our building intact."

District 518 Superintendent John Landgaard confirmed that informal conversations have occurred this past week among school administrators, but he assured that the safety of District 518's students is always at the forefront.

"We talk about how to make our buildings better, safer, user-friendly and still be pleasant places," Landgaard said. "We always remind our front office staff to be vigilant about who comes into buildings.

"That was one of the ideas behind the design of the middle school remodel," he continued. "We intentionally set it up for safety, and we are reviewing how we can make even safer environments at the elementary and high school buildings."

Noble said Prairie Elementary had been "pretty calm" all week, despite constant media coverage of the horrific incident.

"We did go around and talk with teachers, and asked them to let administration know if there were any concerns," Noble said. "They gave us a list of things to reconsider, some of which were definitely valid.

"Officer Jacki Dawson, the police resource officer, came out to walk around the building with me as we tried to see if there is a way we could truly prevent something like that from ever happening."

All District 518 facilities, including the Alternative Learning Center (ALC), practice for emergencies with five fire drills and five lockdown drills annually.

"It may have been about eight or nine years ago we started the lockdown drills," recalled Jeff Luke, principal at Worthington Middle School (WMS). "You hope you'd have good reactions if something horrible happened, but it's scary enough when you're sitting in the halls waiting out a thunderstorm and potential tornado, like we had last spring.

"We tell our staff to protect themselves and the kids as well as they can and hope for the best."

Luke explained that WMS has a monthly crisis response team meeting. Committee members are volunteers, and they happened to have their regular meeting scheduled for earlier this week.

"After that meeting, we put out a message to staff, reminding them to do everything they can to stay calm in the event of a crisis situation, to stay cool and start giving orders," Luke said.

Luke, too, is pleased with the new entrance design at WMS, which brings visitors in through one set of doors into a large lobby -- but the school itself cannot be accessed after 7:50 a.m. unless one passes through the office and yet another door.

"They did a phenomenal job here," Luke said. "The next step up would be to have a buzzer at the sidewalk to get in, but that isn't always a fool-proof system, either.

"I was in a classroom one day this week and a student asked, 'What would we do if that was happening?'" recounted Luke. "I told him that's why we practice lockdowns and said, 'You look at your teacher, follow directions and take that practice seriously.' We try to keep a positive outlook."

Karelis and Landgaard had already been working to organize a meeting, scheduled for Jan. 9, including representatives from the Worthington Police Department, the Worthington Fire Department, emergency personnel from Sanford Health and District 518's building principals.

"We will look at what, if anything, we can do to make our facilities safer, and re-examine our crisis management policy to see if we can make that better," Karelis explained. "The key component in this is good communication, and I'm sure this is something that schools across the state and nation will be looking at."

Added Landgaard, "We can never be 100 percent sure things are going to work or be in place the way they need to be in a crisis, but our staff is very good about bringing items that might be of concern to our attention.

"We are extremely fortunate our staff helps us in that way. We live in a good community with good kids, and I feel pretty good about where we're at with things, but school safety is always a big discussion in anything we do."

Noble said last Friday's Newtown tragedy brought in calls from a few parents with questions, and one parent came to the school during the day to see her child for a few minutes. With two young children of his own, he understands the impulse.

"My third-grade son talked about it at home," Noble said. "We always have to be ready to protect these little ones, and we need to be wise about how we work with parents, too."

Officer Dawson, who is in her first year as the local school resource officer but is a seven-year WPD veteran, said last week's event has led to a stepped-up police presence in the schools, for several reasons.

"It makes the children feel a little more comfortable, and the administration appreciates it as well," Dawson said. "When something like this occurs, it's a reminder that we can always do better, so we go into the schools to re-evaluate safety procedures and see what we can do to be more safe and more prepared."

Dawson sees her job, in part, as being supplemental to the primary role parents should play in instilling good values in their children.

"If they're not getting it at home, then teachers, staff and officers like me do what we can to teach kids respect for others, what is right and wrong and how to have more self-confidence," said Dawson, asserting that lack of such standards could be part of what has contributed in recent years to the spate of shootings that have occurred.

"When Officer Kirk Honius and I teach the DARE classes this year, there is a new curriculum that doesn't focus only on abuse of alcohol, tobacco and drugs but also on developing sound social skills, coping mechanisms, handling peer pressure and bullying -- that kind of thing," Dawson noted.

"Everyone needs to have respect for elders, authority figures and human life, and we need to work on reinforcing kindness," she said.

Dawson visits all District 518 buildings each week and is at multiple schools every day.

Luke, for one, values that occasional police presence.

"Kids needs to know we have good relationships with the police, and the bad guys need to know there are cops walking around the school every so often," Luke said. "We receive excellent support from the Worthington Police Department."

So while official policies, procedures and building safety measures will continue to be assessed and improved, Karelis summed up the collective attitude of District 518's administrators.

"Our staff will do everything possible to keep our kids safe," Karelis said. "School should be a safe place, and we want to keep it that way."