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Despite Shadow Of Sandy Hook, Schools Considered 'Safe'


And of course, members of Congress aren't alone in reconsidering their position on guns and public safety. Schools across the country have been increasing security since the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary. As one school official in suburban Washington, D.C. said, Newtown changed school security the way 9/11 changed air travel. A high school in Illinois recently staged a lockdown drill with administrators shooting blanks in the hallways while the kids huddled in the classrooms with the doors locked and lights off.

Dr. Ronald Stephens is executive director of the National School Safety Center. He joins us from member station KCLU in Thousand Oaks, California. Dr. Stephens, thanks for being with us.

RONALD STEPHENS: You're welcome.

SIMON: And is there pressure coming from parents for schools to do more, both equipment and armed guards?

STEPHENS: Pressure is coming not only from parents but from school board members, even students are wondering whether or not they are safe at school. And so the challenge that schools have across the country right now is really addressing the question: how do we react without overreacting? How do we create a safe campus without turning it into an armed camp? These are some of the primary challenges being faced at this time.

SIMON: I'll bet you have a specific answer with this. Statistically speaking, how often do schools experience gun violence?

STEPHENS: Schools continue to be one of the safest places anyone can be in the country. Over the past two decades, we've had approximately 500 school-associated violent deaths. Of course, a single death is one too many. But you look at how this stacks up against what's happening in other communities, you can take the city of Chicago, they had over 500 homicides simply within the last year. And so, schools really, in many ways, are the safest place for young people to be, much safer than even in their homes or in the community.

SIMON: And do you have any data that suggests whether armed guards, surveillance cameras, metal detectors, how successful they've been at reducing or deterring violence?

STEPHENS: All of those strategies can be helpful. However, if you are dealing with a determined intruder or killer, it's very difficult to stop. I mean, I'm thinking of even Red Lake, Minnesota where Jeffrey Weise came on the campus. And ultimately, in that incident, there were about 10 individuals killed. But they had great access control, perimeter fencing. They had metal detectors. They had camera surveillance. There are actually two security officers at the front door. And, of course, he came right in through this front door of the school and actually penetrated all of those strategies that were in place, from visitor control to the campus supervision.

And so, it is very difficult to stop an intended intruder who is so committed to committing an act of violence.

SIMON: What about lockdown drills, do they help?

STEPHENS: In my view, it's very helpful for schools to take a look at their crisis plans and try to determine in advance what they're going to do. It is important, in my view, to have some drills. But we need to think about the age and the emotional impact that this might have on young children. The important thing is for the teachers and staff to know what their roles and responsibilities are and then to lead students appropriately through this.

SIMON: If you're a principal, Dr. Stephens, do you see violence within the school, either gangs or just something breaking out between a few students, as a greater threat than some armed intruder coming in from the outside?

STEPHENS: I would say that as school principals, many of their greatest challenges involve simply managing incidents that may occur on the campus, whether it's a fight or things like bullying. And so just looking at good bully prevention, which oftentimes, if it's left unchecked it can escalate into something more serious.

And so, if I were looking at my percentages I would say it's really looking after the students more so right there at the school than trying to create barricades and have SWAT teams ready to deal with an intruder who might come onto the campus.

SIMON: Dr. Ronald Stephens is director of the National School Safety Center. Thanks very much for speaking with us.

STEPHENS: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.