MERCED — Merced and Atwater schools are as safe as they can be, administrators said Wednesday, but there are no guarantees.
Last Friday's shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., has prompted local educational leaders to examine and perhaps update their safety plans.
"A fence won't keep anybody out who wants to come in," said Scott Scambray, Merced Union High School District superintendent. "It (the attack) was a horrible situation, and I hope to God it won't happen again. Our schools are as safe as they can be."
Scambray said schools are not designed to be locked down or they would look like prisons.
RoseMary Parga Duran, Merced City School District superintendent, said messages were sent this week to the district's 17 school sites directing leaders to review their site safety plans.
"There is always room for improvement," Duran said. "If they want to get to you, nothing will stop them.
"After Columbine, we all had to step up," she said. "I believe our schools are safe. Safety of children comes first. It's unfortunate we have to deal with that these days."
Melinda Hennes, Atwater Elementary School District superintendent, said she wishes she could guarantee students were safe. The district has eight school sites.
"I believe our facilities are as alert and secure as they reasonably can be," Hennes said. "We make sure we have taken all means to protect children from harm."
Atwater schools have implemented the ALICE program, short for Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter and Evacuate, which will provide better responses to emergencies. The district's school resource officer, Evan Pitney, will be sent to a training session in January.
Hennes said the district has recently completed its fencing and camera surveillance installation.
Stan Mollart, McSwain Union School District superintendent, said McSwain schools are relatively safe. Nevertheless, officials will be reviewing their safety policy.
"We have got to provide a safe environment for kids," Mollart said. "I never want to be in that situation. We always try to learn and grow, if things needs to be adjusted. We practice fire and earthquake drills and lockdowns; the kids know how to respond."
Merced policeman Ryan King is the school resource officer at Merced High School. He said officials are proactive about campus safety and met Monday to assess how to better keep things safe. Refresher courses have been held to respond to active-shooter situations.
A police officer for 19 years, King said they haven't had a lockdown at Merced High this year. Campus liaisons and security officers regularly monitor the main entrance to the school and are connected by radio to the office.
Drills and safety plans
Greg Spicer, associate superintendent of administrative services with the Merced City School District, said all schools are proactive about holding lockdown drills. Very few campuses allow parents beyond the office and entry gates.
Spicer said all sites are fenced and workers are making sure all doors have locks on the inside. By law, schools are required to revise their safety plans yearly.
"No matter what, you can't prevent that person who wants to break through and jump the fence. Nobody's going to keep a nut like that out," Spicer said. "You are never prepared for someone with a gun. The kids are ours, and we think seriously about keeping them safe."
"Communication is key in campus safety," Spicer said. Principals, assistant principals, custodians and maintenance personnel all are equipped with portable radios and are the first lines of communication.
Kelly Bentz, the high school district's program administrator for child welfare, attendance and safety, said the high school district has a $170,000 federal grant to promote school safety.
The grant has been used to purchase first aid kits for offices and classrooms, along with staging safety weeks at each campus. Two lockdown drills are held each year, and the district works with first-responders, Bentz said. "We've done a good job preparing as best as we can," Bentz said.
Kraig Magnussen, chief operations officer for the Merced City School District, said there are safety plans at each school site. He said security concerns have heightened since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
"There is always a need for security," Magnussen said. "Our number one concern is keeping students and staff safe. They had a pretty secure system in Connecticut, but this starts to make you think about things. Short of an armed guard, what could they have done differently?"
Reporter Doane Yawger can be reached at (209) 385-2407 or firstname.lastname@example.org.