This logic, of minimizing spaces that could trigger trauma, led Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, to remain closed for nearly four years after a gunman killed 26 people there in December 2012. Students were sent to an elementary school in a nearby town while the entire Sandy Hook facility was torn down and rebuilt.
Kennedy-Paine believes that schools need to build some time into their schedules for recovery, and re-open with an “open house” of some sort, perhaps on an evening before school starts up again. At Santa Fe, students and their parents were invited back to campus for a two-hour assembly the morning before classes began. At Marjory Stoneman Douglas, an open house was held on a Sunday afternoon before classes resumed later in the week. When students come back, “It’s not unlike when you have a home burglary—you feel very violated,” she says. At Thurston, Kennedy-Paine remembers, parents and teachers entered with the students, hand in hand. “It gave a very nice sense of taking back the school from this terrible thing that happened,” she says.
If there’s one big commonality in how schools respond to shootings, it’s reinforcing security. When students return to school in the immediate wake of a tragedy, Kennedy-Paine says, “we also want to make sure there are overt signs of physical safety.” Often, schools beef up the presence of security officers and parent volunteers, just to have “more eyes on kids, more people watching what’s going on.” And since schools often have a number of entrances and exits, Kennedy-Paine says locking more doors to limit possible points of entry for an intruder can help students feel safer.
Many schools plan out their security strategy in two phases: First, figure out what to do for the remainder of the current school year, and second, figure out what to do permanently. In both cases, some extra security measures are a given, such as an increase in the number of school resource officers (SROs)—essentially, police officers assigned to patrol a school full-time. Marshall County High School, for example, had one SRO on duty last year but reopened this fall with five, as well as a new set of metal detectors.
While an SRO’s primary duty is to protect students in the event of an attack at school, another is to prevent such attacks from happening in the first place, which Mo Canady, the executive director of the National Association of School Resource Officers, says involves building and maintaining trusting relationships with students. Of course, in communities where views of law enforcement are less than favorable, administrators are often less enthusiastic about shoring up the police presence in schools.
SROs assigned to schools in the wake of school shootings and acts of violence, Canady says, are often surprised by the degree to which they end up working to protect students’ emotional health in addition to their physical safety. Often, Canady finds, students talk to the officers about more than just potential dangers. Years ago, Canady worked as an officer in a school where one student stabbed another between classes, and the next day, “we thought we would be spending our time keeping the school physically secure, but we spent more of our time in the room where all of the counseling was going on.” Granted, not all students have positive experiences with SROs: An officer at a South Carolina high school came under public scrutiny in 2016 after he violently dragged a student across a classroom floor.