School shootings: Are Minnesota schools prepared?

Parents leave a staging area
Parents leave a staging area after being reunited with their children following the shooting at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., on Friday, Dec. 14, 2012.
Jessica Hill/ASSOCIATED PRESS

There's no way to predict every emergency, but having a strong plan that teachers and students are comfortable following is aimed at minimizing the impact of an attack, Minnesota school officials said Monday.

The shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn., was still on the minds of many Minnesota teachers and administrators as they returned to welcome students on Monday morning.

Mary Cathryn Ricker, president of the teachers union for the St. Paul Public Schools, said some teachers are reminding inquiring students that there's a plan to keep them safe.

"I know teachers were preparing to make sure that students understand that — this teacher standing in front of you and the teachers standing all around you care about you deeply, your safety is paramount to all of us," Ricker told MPR's The Daily Circuit.

Minnesota schools are required to carry out five safety drills each year, which puts Minnesota "ahead of the game," said Jason Matlock, manager of the Minneapolis Public School's Department of Emergency Management and Safety & Security.

"I don't think you can ever have enough training," Matlock said.

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As details of the shooting in Connecticut are revealed, Matlock said school districts will likely look at their own plans.

"We do go back and review and look if there's a place we could do better," he said.

Ricker said some of the actions teachers took in the Connecticut shooting were likely part of protocol, such as locking doors, only revealing themselves after they were sure of a law enforcement officer's identity, having a safe place in the neighborhood to take children, and using the intercom system.

But Matlock and Ricker also said it's important to focus on relationships in the wake of the shooting — especially with local law enforcement.

Matlock noted that school resource officers from the Minneapolis Police Department try to act as mentors to work with students, not necessarily in a punitive manner.

When it comes to responding to an attack, a school's procedures have to be applicable to many different scenarios, said Charlie Kyte, former superintendent for the Northfield School District. Kyte said the bias has to be toward action.

"If this type of thing happens, it may well happen once in a person's lifetime, you can't totally predict how the situation is going to unfold," he said. "You have to teach that flexibility as well as having procedures in place."

Kyte said the drills happen at several levels — among staff without the students, with students and also with law enforcement.

Ricker recalled participating in a drill shortly after the Columbine High School shooting. It involved law enforcement in the St. Cloud School District, and one scenario sent Ricker out into the hallway to confront an armed intruder.

"It sent a very real chill up my spine," she said. "It made me realize that this is exactly why you practice until that becomes habit."

Still, with all the talk about safety in the wake of the shooting, it's important for students, teachers and parents to keep things in perspective, said Julie Blaha, president of the teachers union in the Anoka-Hennepin district.

"I think students want to know we have plans, that we've thought about this, that we're ready to handle situations. And that, again, they're safe at school," she said on MPR's Morning Edition. "School is still one of the safest places for a student to be."

READ MORE ABOUT SCHOOL SAFETY:

Minnesota began stepping up school security after Columbine (Pioneer Press)

Minnesota schools do what they can to prevent shootings (Detroit Lakes Tribune)

Minnesota Homeland Security and Emergency Management school safety guidance

School safety experts disagree on lock down procedures after Newtown shooting (ABC News)