One year ago today Amanda Studer, a third-grade teacher at Gainesville Exploration Academy, was off campus with her class, cheering on the Red Elephants as the high school football team was preparing to go to the state championship.
At the same time, events were unfolding 900 miles away in Newtown, Conn., that would capture the nation’s attention and forever change how schools address safety protocol.
“On the way back was when everyone started getting text message alerts,” Studer said, “and we started hearing about what had happened.”
What had happened was unimaginable.
After shooting and killing his mother in their home, 20-year-old Adam Lanza went to nearby Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., to begin a rampage that left 20 students and six adults dead before he took his own life.
“I couldn’t imagine it truly was happening in such an innocent place,” Studer said. “I know, with me being here as an educator, these aren’t just my students. They become my family.”
It’s a sentiment shared by many, with local educators seeing themselves in the teachers who were protecting their students that day.
“At the core of a dedicated teacher’s heart is a genuine love for his or her students,” said RaShada Wood, a second-grade teacher at White Sulphur Elementary. “This is why we do what we do every day. This is why we put in long hours and accept the pay that we receive.”
Following the events in Newtown, local schools jumped into immediate action, going through practice scenarios in case anything like that should happen here.
“We immediately started having Code Red drills,” said Studer. “They immediately started having us practicing some of those drills that we hadn’t practiced in a while. They also immediately came up with a plan ... it’s like a little booklet (of) people who are in charge. Like, ‘if this happened, this is where you go, these are the people you contact.’”
Gainesville students returned to class for a few days following the weekend after the Newtown shooting, while Hall County had already gone on winter break. Rebecca Bowen and Leah Hulsey, teachers at Wauka Mountain Multiple Intelligences Academy, said the staff met immediately when the break was over.
“We started discussing and talking about how this could be us,” Bowen, a fifth-grade teacher, said. “You have to prepare for this type of situation because you never know what’s going to happen.”
Hulsey, a third-grade teacher at Wauka Mountain, said the biggest thing was allaying the fears of the students and parents.
“We had to do all that we could to confirm and reaffirm with them that their kids were going to be safe, and they were in the best hands they could be,” she said.
Teachers said those lockdown drills, when students and teachers practice how to respond in a situation similar to the Newtown shooting, are now common place. Leslie Turner, a kindergarten teacher at White Sulphur Elementary, said safety is even more of a concern than it was before hand.
“During lockdown drills, my mind always goes to the terror the students and entire faculty at Sandy Hook had to endure,” Turner said. “As a school system, I think safety is taken more seriously because of such a horrible situation.”
“Teachers all over the country had to face the hard truth that elementary schools are no longer hallowed ground against the problems of the world,” she said.
Locked-door policies also became commonplace; at Studer’s school, teachers were supposed to have their doors locked prior to the Sandy Hook incident, but following that day and into this school year, leaders go around to make sure that the rule is followed.
“And also our outside doors,” Studer added. “The teachers used to exit over by the teachers’ (parking) lot. Those doors are now sealed and closed. We have to exit through the front of the school.”
Kim Anzaldi, a fourth-grade teacher and school safety coordinator at Oakwood Elementary School, said there’s no locked-door policy at her school for the interior doors, but there’s a much more stringent procedure for checking in visitors. Anyone going into a Hall County school must enter through the front and show photo identification to receive a badge prior to school admittance.
“If they don’t have a badge on, we have to send them to the office,” she explained. “It’s made us more aware to look around and see who’s walking through our buildings. If you don’t have a tag, it’s automatically, ‘Let me walk you down to the office and get a badge.’”
And, schools continue looking at other methods of keeping kids safe.
For example, Gainesville City Schools has had an initiative up in the air for a few months about allowing school resource officers to have access to long-range rifles inside of Gainesville High, Gainesville Middle and Wood’s Mill Academy. The guns would be placed in safes accessible only by the resource officer.
Another option being considered is to have scan cards for the high school students, so only they would have entry in certain locations. Right now, all Gainesville school visitors must check in at the school’s front office, and exterior doors remain locked.
In the Hall County School District, all schools use the Raptor visitor management system, which checks the sex offender registry for everyone who enters the school. All visitors must go through the front office; all exterior doors are locked, and now each school has interior security doors that block the main entrance to the school, shuttling the person into the office.
Additionally, Hall County Sheriff’s Office deputies are encouraged to check in with the county elementary schools. It’s a win-win situation, with the school offering a comfortable place for the officers to relax, file paperwork and visit with the students and school employees.
With the practice drills and overall extra vigilance on the part of everyone, from school leaders to teachers to students, the one thing these teachers want community members to know is that the schools their children attend are safe.
“Schools are a safe place,” Anzaldi said. “Yes, (violence) has been prominent lately. But I believe schools are still one of the safest places you can be in.”
Studer agreed, but said there’s no way she can let her guard down.
“We’ve always got to be in the frame of mind that it could happen at any point and we have to be prepared for that,” she said. “Not living in a world of being scared all the time ... however, we do need to be alert and realize it could very well happen here.”