WENATCHEE — While at Sandy Hook Elementary School for a parent-teacher conference, Alissa Parker saw several problems.
There was a buzzer to enter the front door, but she could have posed as someone who would normally be allowed into the building. Across from the main office were hallways leading to classrooms, so a shooter wouldn’t have to enter the office. Classroom doors would only lock from the outside.
“Alarms were going off in my mind, and I silenced them because I never thought something like this would ever happen at our school,” Parker said.
Parker co-founded Safe and Sound Schools, which provides education, tools and resources for school crisis prevention, response and recovery. She spoke Monday afternoon at the Confluence Technology Center and that evening at Wenatchee Valley College.
Her 6-year-old daughter, Emilie, was one of 26 students and staff members shot and killed Dec. 14, 2012, at Sandy Hook in Newtown, Connecticut. The perpetrator also killed his mother and himself.
Emilie was a vivacious, friendly child who was always eager to talk to people, her mother said. Her favorite color was pink, and she loved art.
The first-grader was close friends with Josephine, the daughter of Safe and Sound Schools co-founder Michele Gay. Josephine, 7, was also killed at Sandy Hook.
Parker said making a school safer can take time and should start with an assessment. It’s crucial for schools to have backup plans in case leaders like principals are incapacitated, she said, and for everyone to understand procedures to avoid chaos and make it easier to reunite families.
Security doesn’t have to be complex or expensive, Parker said, as even doors locked from the inside can dissuade a shooter. Staff should also have easy access to first-aid kits and know how to use them, she said.
Many schools plan to announce emergencies through the PA system, Parker said, but that didn’t work during the Sandy Hook shooting because the principal was killed and the secretary was hiding. However, one staff member inadvertently turned on the PA system while trying to call 911 from a classroom phone.
Also, Parker said, the school custodian started locking the doors and alerting people upon realizing there was a shooting.
A week before, the school had conducted a lockdown and evacuation drill. Students who escaped the shooting ran to a nearby fire station, as they had practiced. Parker said people revert to training during a crisis, but no one thinks an emergency will actually happen.
Sandy Hook cared about safety and took preventative measures, Parker said, but no outside agency had done an assessment on possible structural or procedural changes.
“We also hadn’t brought in our parents to get their perspectives,” she said. “We hadn’t asked them questions. ‘What are you seeing? What things can be improved on?’ And (we hadn’t) engaged our students, asked them what things do they see. ‘Do you know who to talk to if you see anything that’s scary or if you hear anything? Do you know who your point of contact is to vocalize your fears or your concerns and the things that you’re seeing? ’ ”
Safe and Sound Schools offers workshops and trainings, publishes reports, and works with parents and students on improving school security. For more information, visit safeandsoundschools.org.