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Security precautions after Sandy Hook

Are Lutheran schools a special case?

It is a delicate balance: You want families and congregations to know that your school has reasonable security precautions. But you don’t want to create the impression that your school is a dangerous place.

Rob Cooksey is frank with people. In January, he told 41 families at a kindergarten roundup about his schools’ security measures. Still, he adds, “we try not to dwell on it.”

The outrage of Sandy Hook was really difficult for Cooksey, executive director for the four-campus Christ Community Lutheran School in Kirkwood, Missouri. At Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut, a gunman killed 26 people — including 20 children — in December.

In 1999, Cooksey was principal at a Lutheran school just a few miles from Columbine High School. In April of that year, two armed 18-year-old students entered the high school. They shot and killed 12 students and a teacher before taking their own lives. Another 21 in the school were wounded.

At the time, eight of Cooksey’s Lutheran school graduates attended Columbine High, in an unincorporated area of Jefferson County, Colorado. None of Cooksey’s graduates were killed or wounded. However, for Cooksey, the Colorado atrocity that horrified the world was chillingly close to home. Likewise Sandy Hook.

Strap on heat?

Since Columbine and perhaps even earlier, schools have been taking quiet security steps to protect students, faculty, and staff. At public schools especially in urban areas, these steps have sometimes included armed police officers at the school. Since Sandy Hook, schools have renewed such efforts — up to and including discussion about armed officers and/or armed volunteers on school property.

Lutheran schools have considered all the options. Indeed, these schools are blessed with families and associated congregations: skilled people who may be ready to help. Yet that ready volunteerism may create difficulties if volunteers are willing to strap on heat and patrol the school grounds.

The outrage of Sandy Hook was really difficult for Rob Cooksey, executive director for the four-campus Christ Community Lutheran School in Kirkwood, Missouri.

First, the quiet security measures: These may not be particularly obvious. Many schools have a buzzer system. Doors are locked. To get in, you must identify yourself to an attendant inside. If a door remains unlocked during the school day, a staff member or volunteer may be present to screen visitors.

Cooksey’s Christ Community Lutheran also installed a video-security system a few years ago, buying the equipment and wiring but relying on skilled volunteers to install it.

Another measure is the code word. If teachers and staff hear the code word, they are trained to lock classroom doors and keep students in the rooms.

At Christ Community, one added security measure is new locks on classroom doors. When teachers hear the code word over the intercom, they will be able to lock classroom doors from the inside — no need to step into the hall to lock them from the outside.

The locks are expensive, up to $550 each installed, says Cooksey, but he thinks his school buildings can keep the cost down to about $300 each, thanks in part to volunteers doing installation.

Freak out?

What about armed volunteers patrolling the grounds? That would be complicated. Firearms on school property — church property — may well require approval of church councils and school councils.

And armed volunteers patrolling school property might prove highly divisive in those communities. “My guess is that some people would think that’s great,” says Cooksey. “Others would freak out completely.”

Cooksey also worries about the appearance of schools being armed camps. Students and families, he says, “sort of trust that they’re in a safe place.”

Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod congregations such as those supporting Christ Community have the greatest stake in school security. LCMS congregations sponsor nearly 1,000 schools and nearly 1,400 preschools.

Security? “We don’t have any mandate saying you have to do this or that,” says the Rev. Bill Cochran, director of school ministry for the LCMS.

Yet many LCMS schools have crisis management plans in place, adds Cochran. “I think we always have to be prepared for the worst thing that could happen to us,” he says. “Not that we have to be afraid about it, but it’s always a good idea to be well prepared, to have a good plan to actually know what to do if something should happen.

“We just pray that nothing will ever happen in any of our schools.”

Might there be armed volunteers at Lutheran schools? Cochran says he knows of no such move. At Christ Community schools, Cooksey says the idea has emerged, but he calls these “side discussions.”

What would Jesus say? Turn the other cheek? Well, we’re not talking just about getting slapped in the mouth. For any Christian, in short, it is a delicate balance. Welcome visitors? Or take care of yourself and your kids? Ideally, we can do both.

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