By Janet Cappiello
Kentucky has the misfortune of being a state whose residents know the horror of a deadly school shooting.
It was 1997, and a 14-year-old freshman at Heath High School in Paducah took aim at fellow students gathered in a prayer group. Three of his classmates died; five others were wounded.
It wasn’t until two years later that mass shootings became less rare. Two students at Columbine High School in Colorado shot and killed 12 of their classmates, a teacher and themselves. A nation was forever changed, but in Kentucky, those changes had already begun.
A 1998 state law mandated that every public school have a safety plan, one that deals with disconcertingly endless possibilities from fires to an armed intruder to an earthquake to a train derailment to an angry parent. School doors were locked, procedures put in place to track visitors, drills were held. Metal detectors began popping up; police officers, or school resources officers, too.
More than 600 of the state’s 1,245 schools have voluntarily undergone school safety assessments from a panel of experts at the Kentucky Center for School Safety at Eastern Kentucky University, according to Jon Akers, director of the center.
Yet Akers said no plan can prevent a tragedy such as the shootings that killed 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., on Friday.
“Anybody with enough firepower can come into a school and do what that guy did,” he said. “If you have enough firepower, you can go through anything. That’s the reality of it that people don’t want to hear but that’s the truth.”
Still, on Friday afternoon, Akers emailed every school superintendent in Kentucky, gently reminding them of something he tells them at the beginning of every year: Please make sure principals have reviewed emergency response plans and gone over them with local law enforcement. Please make sure you have your drills.
Akers said he heard from at least one superintendent Friday that a parent had demanded metal detectors. But he said metal detectors are only effective if there is one at every school entrance, a costly prospect.
Akers said his center recommends a slew of what he called “best practices” to prevent a tragedy: keep exterior doors locked at all times, have only one main entrance for visitors, make visitors sign in and wear identification, lock classroom doors when they are closed. In an emergency situation, barricade doors with desks and chairs, he said.
Parents won’t find these emergency plans posted publicly — and for good reason, Akers said. That’s to prevent someone who wants to do harm from knowing, for example, where students and staff are supposed to gather outside the school.
The Dec. 1, 1997, Heath High School shooting remains in the news in Kentucky. Michael Carneal, now 29, is waiting to hear from an appeals court whether he can take back his guilty plea and get a trial, arguing schizophrenia made him incompetent and unable to accept responsibility for the crime.
Meanwhile, Akers said his center has a 60-school waiting list for safety assessments and never has enough money.
“I would like to do 100 schools a year, and I’d like to have schools on a five, six year rotation,” Akers said.
Akers said 221 public schools have school resource officers, or police officers assigned directly to the school.
“And we need 1,245,” he said, because they help prevent incidents before they happen.