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In School Shootings, Limiting Access Is Often Key to Safety

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Another school shooting occurred Wednesday, leaving educators, policymakers, and parents grappling for lessons.

Jacob Hall, a 6-year-old kindergarten pupil in Townville, S.C., is fighting for his life after a 14-year-old gunman allegedly opened fire from the school's playground, also wounding another student and a teacher.

School safety and design experts say the most important steps schools can take are controlling access to classrooms, increasing visibility, and ensuring that staff members are trained and prepared for possible intruders. The district said such measures prevented Wednesday's attack from being worse.

Response to the South Carolina Shooting

South Carolina state Rep. Alan Clemmons shared an update about Jacob's condition on his Facebook page.

And U.S. Education Secretary John B. King Jr. shared a message of support for the victims.

Making Schools Safer

After many school attacks, policymakers and school leaders have turned their attention to making schools safer. Although such attacks are statistically rare, members of the public naturally look for reassurance and answers.

In the year after the 2012 school shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., lawmakers around the country proposed hundreds of bills that would boost school emergency planning, tighten gun restrictions, allow teachers to carry weapons in schools, and upgrade physical-security measures in school buildings. Most of those bills never passed.

At the same time, schools around the country considered measures of their own, like buying costly sophisticated locks and bulletproof whiteboards.

Experts say schools should instead take simple, practical steps to slow intruders' entry and access. As I wrote in 2013:

"Jim LaPosta Jr., the chief architectural officer for JCJ Architecture, a Hartford, Conn., firm that consults with school districts, said architects have seen more instances of "systemic review" of school building security measures following Newtown than they saw after previous acts of school violence.

Instead of bulletproof whiteboards, said Mr. LaPosta, schools should focus on ensuring that buildings allow greater visibility in common areas and hallways, controlled access at entrances, and simple products—like shatter-resistant film on exterior glass—that can slow would-be shooters.

Schools should be learning-focused and not "fortresses," Mr. LaPosta said. "If it becomes the overriding mission of a school to keep kids safe, we worry about the kind of school it will be for kids."

Townville Elementary followed many of the best practices for school safety, according to local reports.

First responders reported to the scene within minutes, quickly taking control of the shooter before he could fire any more shots, NBC affiliate WYFF reports.

The school had done a safety drill last week, Sen. Lindsey Graham wrote on Facebook.

In a statement on the district's website, Superintendent Joanne Avery said existing safety measures, designed to limit access and prepare school staff, may have prevented the attack from being worse:

"It is important to remember that the shooter at Townville did not enter the building at any time. When he arrived on campus in the back of the school, he shot at a door that was being opened as a class began exiting the building for recess. At that time, two students and a teacher were injured. Immediately upon those shots being fired, our students were led to safe locations by the teachers. The doors were secured, and the shooter was denied access to the building and our students. Administrators and teachers at Townville Elementary followed all district procedures by immediately placing the school on lockdown and taking children to secure locations. 

We know it will be difficult for Townville parents to send their children back to school on Monday. But I want to reassure them and the public that security measures are in place. In the past six years, we have upgraded safety features in all schools, including locked entry vestibules in all schools and buzz-in systems. We have school resource officers and regular patrols by sheriff's deputies at all schools. We have camera systems throughout our schools and on our buses. Students and staff receive active-shooter training. The quick action yesterday demonstrates that this training works to prevent additional injuries."

Photo: Joey Taylor walks with his daughter, Josie Taylor, after picking her up at Oakdale Baptist Church on Sept. 28 in Townville, S.C. Students were taken to the church following a shooting at nearby Townville Elementary School. --Rainier Ehrhardt/AP

Related reading on school shootings and school safety:

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