Despite Conn. tragedy, schools still ‘safest place’

CHARLES TOWN – Suggestions that schools beef up security in the wake of last week’s deadly shooting in Newton, Conn., aren’t necessary or practical, contends the president of the Jefferson County Board of Education.

“Schools are still about the safest places kids can be,” said Peter Dougherty, whose first joined the school board in 1984.

Dougherty, a father of three grown children and grandfather to an 11-year-old boy, admits he was shaken by the news that 20-year-old Adam Lanza killed his mother at their home Friday morning then shot his way into a nearby elementary school, where he gunned down 20 children and six staff members.

The attack, believed to have taken just five minutes, ended with Lanza’s suicide as police closed in.

Ranson Police Chief William Roper will remain a fixture at Ranson Elementary School this week to reassure students,parents and staff reeling from last week’s deadly school attack in Newton, Conn.

Ranson Police Chief William Roper will remain a fixture at Ranson Elementary School this week to reassure students, parents and staff reeling from last week’s deadly school attack in Newton, Conn.

“I would describe myself as a stoic person, but the thought of someone going into a school and killing little children this way, it literally makes me sick,” Dougherty said. “A 20-year-old [adult] deliberately killing little children – it’s just hard to fathom.”

Dougherty said he understands the impulse behind calls for greater security at schools. “Of course we want to make sure all our buildings are as safe as possible,” he said. “In recent years, we have added more security at all our schools – doors are locked to ensure the only people there are the people who are supposed to be there – but schools can’t be prisons.”

Some have suggested school systems hire armed guards to patrol each campus. “In the case of a school system our size, we’d need a security force roughly as large as the sheriff’s department,” Dougherty said.

Even if funding for such an increase in school staff were to be found, Dougherty said it would be difficult for a single officer to supervise an entire school building.

“None of our buildings are designed to be fortresses,” he said. “Look at Jefferson High School and the way the building’s been added onto over the years. You have a building with more than 100 doors.”

A single officer with a handgun likely would be no match for an Adam Lanza-style attacker with semi-automatic weapons, Dougherty said. And the sprawling building design in place in so many schools nationwide wouldn’t lend itself to coverage by a single officer, he said.

For instance, a guard positioned on the Charles Town end of Jefferson High who needed to respond to a disturbance on the Shepherdstown side of the school would have to travel an eighth of a mile, Dougherty said. “It’s just not practical,” he said.

Parents and others seeking changes after the Connecticut attack would be better served looking at the mental health system, gun laws and other issues, said Dougherty, who works as the national director of homeless veterans programs at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

Dougherty said schools need to have on staff enough counselors to ensure all students struggling with emotional issues and other problems have someone to talk with. “We have to make sure our social services are in place so that when young people start to unravel, we deal with that,” he said. “We need to make sure they don’t become despondent and out of control.”

People with mental health needs ought to have the same access to care as a person with a physical ailment, said Dougherty, who left the school board in 2002 but returned four years later and was re-elected in 2010.

“There’s still a stigma attached to mental illness but we need to begin to see that asking for counseling when that’s needed is no different than a person with arthritis seeking a knee replacement.”

It’s clear the system is in need of recalibration when Americans can gain access to a high-powered weapon more quickly and easily than they can get an appointment for a mental health evaluation, Dougherty said.

On Monday as U.S. Sens. Mark Warner of Virginia and West Virginia’s Joe Manchin – both pro-gun Democrats – announced they would support discussion of new gun legislation. Dougherty said he, too, believes the time has come to look at stricter gun laws.

“It’s what the senators were saying earlier – this incident brings us to a point where we need to discuss the issue,” Dougherty said Monday night. “I’ve always been a strong supporter of the Second Amendment, but how can there be a claim that we need semi-automatic or fully automatic guns for any kind of hunting?”

As talk of gun control unfolds on the national stage, Dougherty says there’s a way for parents and other local residents to make a difference close to home: by working with students as reading volunteers or in other capacities.

“A lot of our children have two caring parents, but some need more positive attention in their lives,” Dougherty said. “More adults becoming more involved with our schools – it’s a way for something positive to come out of this tragedy.”

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