The near tragedy averted at Stockton Springs Elementary last month when a man took 11 children hostage at gunpoint, according to police, highlights the challenges school administrators face in keeping children safe.
Even though the Waldo County school had been in lockdown mode during the previous week because nearby resident Randall Hofland was a fugitive from police and believed to be armed and dangerous, Mr. Hofland was able to get into the school. The two times during the day when schools are vulnerable to such incursions, school officials say, are during the controlled chaos that comes at arrival and departure times for students. Lockdown calls for all exterior doors to be locked, and admission allowed only by school staff. That policy is not practical when hundreds of students are tromping off buses and into school, trying to make it to class on time, so the front doors are left unlocked.
Since the shootings at schools in Jonesboro, Ark., Littleton, Colo., and elsewhere, education officials in Maine have developed policies and protocols to prepare for such incidents. Schools constructed or renovated since the tragedies at Jonesboro and Columbine include design elements with security in mind. School offices typically have full view of the main entrance to the building. In some schools, closed-circuit TV cameras help office staff monitor who comes into the building.
Though incidents such as that which unfolded at Stockton Springs Elementary School last month are, thankfully, rare, there are other potentially violent scenarios that are far more likely. These include a distraught teen who brought a gun to school to threaten suicide to get the attention of a girlfriend who has spurned him, and separated parents who are fighting over the custody of their children, with one trying to kidnap the children to take them out of state.
The Stockton Springs incident also makes the case for schools hiring a school resource officer – a police officer who is posted to the school – to help educators maintain a reasonable level of security, and to be able to respond with the full force of the law should the unthinkable happen.
As Maine’s public school enrollment continues to decline, small schools like Stockton Springs Elementary School, with an enrollment of about 80, will continue to be vulnerable because expensive retrofits, adding electronic security equipment or hiring a law enforcement officer is not economically feasible. And small schools in rural districts often share a principal, so that administrator may be miles away if a threatening situation unfolds.
While school boards should resist turning our schools into fortresses, they should look for and be willing to accept state leadership in managing their buildings so their young charges are as safe as can be reasonably expected.