Better security, still pain

Published October 2, 2006

DENVER - A bearded drifter walks into a Colorado school and fatally shoots a student before taking his own life. Wisconsin authorities charge three boys with plotting a bomb attack on their high school, and, two weeks later, a student in a rural school allegedly shoots his principal. A gunman bursts into a Vermont elementary school looking for his ex-girlfriend and guns down a teacher.

All of this in the past month.

Since the 1999 Columbine massacre that left 15 people dead in Colorado, there has been a determined effort among administrators, principals and teachers to improve school safety.

But experts say there is simply no way to guarantee that a stranger or student won't be able to injure or kill on school grounds.

"There's no perfect security, from the White House to the schoolhouse," said Kenneth Trump, president of the National School Safety and Security Services consulting firm in Cleveland.

Trump's firm counts 17 nonfatal school shootings so far this school year, beginning Aug. 1. There were 85 the previous school year and 52 in the 2004-05 school year.

Since Columbine in 1999, the number of fatal school shootings in a school year has been as low as three (2002-03) and as high as 24 (2004-05), according to National School Safety and Security Services.

Park County Sheriff Fred Wegener was among the law enforcement officials who eagerly applied for federal aid to beef up security at Platte Canyon High School in Bailey, Colo., the site of last week's attack in which a man held six girls hostage before killing one and himself.

A deputy was assigned to be the school's resource officer - essentially, its security guard. But that guard was called away on sheriff's business last Wednesday and gunman Duane Morrison walked inside with two handguns.

Despite the death of 16-year-old Emily Keyes, things could have been worse, authorities said.

"Basically, the tragedy of Columbine taught law enforcement and educators how to avoid future tragedies," Gov. Bill Owens said.

He said educators had been instructed in August on what to do. Ever since Columbine, school officials have been taught to write emergency response plans and practice them, to lock down schools and evacuate when it appears safe. That seemed to work well in Bailey, as hundreds of students were whisked to safety.

Law enforcement officers who once were taught to set up a perimeter and wait for SWAT teams to show up are now trained in "active shooter" programs that call for the first officers on the scene to enter the building and work as quickly as possible to locate the gunman, Trump said.

"That's why we were able to isolate it to just one room and get everybody else out," Wegener said. "Still, you can't prepare for something like this. You do the best you can."