In Our View: Safety Not Guaranteed

School officials do their best to ensure security, but there are no easy answers



The frightening truth is that safety never can be guaranteed. Millions of students across the country and about 60,000 across Clark County attend school day after day, buoyed by the finest hopes of their parents and confident in the sense that they will be protected while away from home.

But even with the best-laid plans already in place, school security requires ongoing diligence from school officials and from law enforcement. And, as detailed recently in a two-part series by Columbian reporters Susan Parrish and Paul Suarez, that security has been vastly altered in recent years both in terms of prevention and the level of threats.

It’s not that school violence is a wholly modern invention. The worst school massacre in U.S. history was a bombing that ended in 45 deaths in Bath Township, Mich., in 1927. But the frequency of shootings has increased over the past generation.

Not long ago, school security might have meant concerns over fist fights or an occasional student with a knife, but the scope of school violence has changed. The most prominent events in the minds of the public likely are a 1999 shooting at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., and last year’s massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn. Yet the list of school shootings is too long to enumerate, including one that hit relatively close to home in 1998 at Thurston High School in Springfield, Ore.

The head-in-the-sand idea that it can’t happen here, if anybody clings to that notion, has been scuttled by recent history. In Dec. 2012, a 15-year-old Evergreen High School student brought a disassembled shotgun to school intending to sell it to a fellow student; a teacher found the gun in a nylon case in a classroom. And in October of this year, an 11-year-old middle school student in the Evergreen district brought a .22-caliber handgun and more than 400 rounds of ammunition to school, along with several knives.

It’s a stretch to go from a student carrying a gun to perpetrating a community-altering tragedy, but it’s not a big leap, and that presents a challenge for school districts locally, as well as throughout the country. In their series, reporters Parrish and Suarez took a look at safety measures at Woodburn Elementary in the Camas School District, the newest elementary school in Clark County. Among the safety measures is the fact that administrative offices have an unobstructed view of the parking lot, front doors, and playground. The need for such measures once was unheard of, but, as Clark County Sheriff’s Office Sgt. Shane Gardner said, “Some schools are just not designed well. Whoever the architects were didn’t fathom that people would do such evil things.”

Older schools, meanwhile, undergo constant security reviews. Many have been retrofitted to add safety measures, and several schools in the area have added on-campus security officers.

Others throughout the country have advocated more radical measures. In the wake of last year’s Sandy Hook shooting, a task force backed by the National Rifle Association recommended allowing teachers to keep loaded guns in their classrooms, provided the teachers have been properly trained. But advocating more guns to solve problems caused by people using guns is illogical and would seem to only be inviting disaster.

Certainly, there are no easy answers. Through design improvements and technology upgrades and human involvement, school administrators will do their best to ensure student safety — knowing that there are no guarantees.