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LSSD stresses safety in wake of Newtown

Law enforcement officials in Connecticut say they're still unsure what caused a young man to enter Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown a week ago, opening fire to take the lives of 12 girls and 8 boys -- all 6- and 7-year-olds -- and six adult women.

The alleged shooter is believed to have killed his mother earlier that morning and to have shot himself in the head as first responders entered the school.

The killings in a community long-described as peaceful and idyllic have shocked the nation, sparking serious conversations about gun control, beginning with President Obama, who is likely to present a gun violence measure to Congress.

In the meantime, nearly everyone has been forced to review or reexamine school security in their own communities.

"Schools are tough places to lockdown," said Joe Nicklay, principal of William Kelley High School and Elementary in Silver Bay. "You try to make it a welcoming place but you also have to make sure it's safe. ... We're doing everything we can to make sure the students in our buildings are safe."

Lake Superior School District Superintendent Bill Crandall said the district has a crisis management plan and each school has specific procedures in place designed for its building. The plans are reviewed once a year at minimum.

"It covers many different scenarios...from weather (emergencies) to situations like the shooting or whatever happens," Crandall said, adding that schools work closely with local law enforcement, fire departments and rescue squads to coordinate their efforts should a large-scale emergency occur.

The state of Minnesota requires each school to conduct five emergency drills per year, said Crandall. The staged emergencies fall into two main categories: evacuations, which are used for fires and similar events, and lockdowns, which would be used in the event of an armed intruder.

In the wake of the New England shootings, Minnesota Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius released the following statement Dec. 14:

"Today, innocent children and educators lost their lives in an unspeakable tragedy. When we send our children to school, we expect they will be safe and secure. Nothing is worse than when our confidence is shaken and the safety of a child is put into question. Our hearts go out to the Newtown community as they begin the long process of healing in the days, weeks and months to come."

Minnesota is sadly not unfamiliar with gun violence in schools. In September 2003, two students were shot -- one dying at the scene and the other 16 days later -- at Ricori High School in Cold Water. Less than two years later, nine were killed -- two relatives of the alleged shooter, five students and a security guard -- at Red lake High School before the 16-year old gunman killed himself.

While calls mount nationally for stricter gun bans, with some previous supporters of the National Rifle Association on other Second Amendment groups beginning to show signs of softening support, others suggest more guns are the answer. State Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Good Thunder, has promised to introduce legislation allowing teachers and administrators to carry guns at school.

"It's something that we have to face that all of the laws in the world sometimes aren't just going to work," Cornish told Minnesota Public Radio's Tom Scheck. "The cop can't be everywhere so the best person to defend yourself is yourself."

His proposal was immediately discounted by DFL Gov. Mark Dayton as an idea that "defies common sense."

While legislators and gun lobbies wrangle over the legal issues -- the NRA says it plans to hold a "major news conference" today, in which it will "offer meaningful contributions to help make sure this never happens again" -- area principals are working hard to ensure that students feel safe in the wake of the Connecticut tragedy.

School counselors and psychologists are available to talk to Lake County students, and the schools are making resources available to help parents answer children's questions and discuss the events in Newtown.

"I think part of that is normalcy...keeping things normal and routine at home. Don't be afraid to discuss things," Two Harbors High School Principal Brett Archer said.

"It gets really important for adults to remain calm and assure their children that they're safe," adds Pat Driscoll, principal of Minnehaha Elementary School.

At Minnehaha Elementary, a lock-down means all the classroom doors are secured and children are instructed to stay quiet, said Driscoll. Like the high schools, Minnehaha has also stepped up its security in recent years.

"Most recently we installed cameras and the buzzer system (at the entrances to the building) and we are looking at our security again in light of what's happened," she said.

Archer also emphasized that communication among students, parents and schools should be open. If students are worried about their safety or someone else's, they need to know it's safe to report concerns to parents or a school authority, he said.

"If you're saying something to protect someone or protect yourself, that's reporting, not tattling," Archer said.

All three principals said they want to assure parents that keeping children safe is a district-wide priority.