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Day of shock and mourning puts focus on children's safety

SALT LAKE CITY — As the country mourns the deaths of 26 people, including 20 children, slain at an elementary school in Connecticut, parents in Utah and throughout the country are questioning the safety of their own children and what is in place to protect them from violence.

"Immediately you feel vulnerable because you know it could happen to any of us," Trisha Anderson said Friday while waiting outside Sunrise Elementary School in Sandy. "Here I am picking my kids up at elementary school, and it could happen to them. It could be this school. You have no control over that."

Education officials in Utah said schools do what they can to create a safe environment, installing surveillance cameras, designing buildings to limit entrance points and requiring visitors to check in at the front office. But ultimately there is only so much that can be done to prevent someone bent on causing harm to others from coming on campus.

"(Students are) as safe as your child is at home and as safe as your child is going to the grocery store," Davis School District spokesman Chris Williams said. "The question is how much money would it take to build an armed fortress, and do people really want that?"

Ben Horsley, spokesman for the Granite School District, said everything short of turning schools into prisons that keep students in and intruders out is being done to increase security. The district currently has cameras in all of its secondary schools and is working to install cameras in its elementary schools.

Horsley also said the district has security policies and procedures in place, but he declined to elaborate on their specifics out of concern for preserving their efficacy.

"Obviously a safe environment is critical with respect to providing educational opportunities for our student," he said. "If kids don't feel safe, then it really denigrates our efforts educationally."

When the district looks at constructing new schools, designs are tailored to address safety concerns, Horsley said. Since the Columbine High School shootings in Colorado 1999, there has been a specific interest in designing safety measures into schools, such as limiting access to a single entrance and forcing visitors to pass by the school's front office and check in with administrators, he said.

Schools are built to improve visibility, an example being the design of the new Granger High School, where a faculty member can stand in one place and see down several hallways, Horsley said. School property is also structured to establish a perimeter, he said, and limit the ways people can approach and enter a school.

"You can see that a lot of the newer designs have taken into account safety concerns," Horsley said.

Granite is unique among its peer districts in that it contains a police department, which oversees and develops the district's security plans. But with only 16 officers in a district of 92 schools, Horsley said the Granite Police Department primarily assists the district with investigations and security oversight. The district would rely on area law enforcement as the primary responders in the event of a tragic security incident like the shooting in Connecticut.

"Allied agencies provide a number of our (resource officers) in our schools already," he said. "We contract with them, and they provide those (officers) at their insistence as well."

Horsley said there was still relatively little known about how the incident in Newtown, Conn., unfolded, but from preliminary reports it appeared that the school's lockdown procedures had potentially saved lives.

If a similar incident were to happen in a Granite school or other school in the state, school officials would rely on their own lockdown procedures to limit mass casualties as much as possible, he said.

Schools rely on the input of parents and community members to monitor and implement safety plans, Horsley said.

"It's important that they have a voice and a concern there, and express feedback to us as we go through those processes," he said.

Williams said newer buildings in the Davis School District implement many of the same design considerations Horsley described. Some buildings, such as Endeavor Elementary in Kaysville, have electronic keypads that limit access as well as allow portable classrooms to be locked from the inside, he said.

Williams said that while educators are aware of the potential for danger and try to foresee various scenarios, there are some acts of cruelty that simply go beyond what can be planned for.

"This kind of situation is beyond anything we could compare with past experience or anything we could dream up," he said. "It just boggles my mind."

Williams described the tragedy in Connecticut as the work of a "deranged mind" and said it would likely cause school officials around the country to rethink their preparation and security measures.

"It's a very challenging time in our society," he said. "We have to talk about this thing and have scenarios in place."

Sunrise Elementary Principal Frank Schofield said the school's faculty had not talked about the shooting with students but would be working with parents to help them discuss the tragedy with their children.

"I've got 750 students," Schofield said. "You worry. You put plans in place. You do everything you can to keep kids safe, and every once in a while bad things happen."

Contributing: Kathryn May