In Wake of Shootings, Iowa Schools Put Safety Plans in Place

Feb 11, 2013

Two portable classrooms sit outside Studebaker Elementary School in southeast Des Moines, readied to be sold. The Des Moines Public School District is getting rid of its portables because students had to walk between buildings regularly.
Credit Clay Masters / IPR

As President Obama’s gun control proposals make their slow way through Congress, Iowa, and every state in the nation, is asking the same question. How do we protect our children from gun violence? Iowa Public Radio’s Clay Masters talked to some of the voices in this debate and visited a school in Des Moines.

At Studebaker elementary school in southeast Des Moines, students practice a fire drill.  They exit the building in single file.

“You practice for these kinds of things,” chief operating officer of Des Moines Public Schools Bill Good said. “Each school has a unique plan to themselves.”

Good’s in charge of safety for Des Moines Public Schools. These drills are nothing new he says. The Columbine school massacre fourteen years ago changed everything.

And it’s not only procedures that have changed. 20 years ago he says schools were built to be accessible. Not anymore. Here at Studebaker, Security cameras are posted inside and outside the school.

"When there's an armed citizen present, they can stop the situation before it gets worse. I don't believe we keep our precious lambs safe from the wolf removing the sheepdog." -Tom Shaw (R-Laurens)

“As you can see there’s a vestibule here, you can’t have access to staff, students or the interior of the building without being identified and checked in”

According to reports Sandy Hook elementary was not easily accessible either but the gunman shot his way through a glass door anyway. That’s why Tom Shaw argues that beefed up security just isn’t enough. Shaw is a Republican from Laurens in the Iowa House and he’s introduced a bill that would allow people with concealed weapon permits to carry guns on school grounds.

“When there’s an armed citizen present, they can stop the situation before it gets worse,” Shaw said. “I don’t believe we keep our precious lambs safe from the wolf removing the sheepdog.”

Similar bills have been introduced around the country. In Iowa, however, even if it gets through the Republican-controlled House it won’t be considered in the Democratic-controlled Senate. Citizens with guns would not be helpful during a shooting anyway according to Lieutenant Joe Tyler. He’s a cop who teaches self-defense at the University of Northern Iowa.

“You’re going to have law enforcement coming in and they’re going to have information that there is a shooter in the building, quite possibly could be a male and that’s all they have,” Lt. Tyler said. “They quickly go into a room. They hear the gunshots, they go in and then you’ve got a bystander, a good Samaritan has a gun… the results could be terrible.”

Tyler teaches a course called Violent Incident Defense Strategies or VIDS to students and faculty at UNI

"They hear the gunshots, they go in and then you have a bystander, a good Samaritan has a gun, the results could be terrible." -UNI Lt. Joe Tyler

  . Instead of hiding, bystanders are encouraged to stop the shooter by throwing items at them- anything from hot coffee to laptops…. Whatever it takes to bring the shooter down and get the weapon away.

“This training is totally applicable for high schools, grade schools, junior highs,” Tyler said.

In fact a number of K-12 schools around the country are already doing this. That’s according to Professor Carl Smith. He studies child behavior at Iowa State. He agrees type of training is helpful. He also agrees with the vast majority of voices in the debate that fixing our mental health system is key. However, he worries about applying a broad brush.

The debate goes on, teachers and administrators must make decisions today  on how to protect their students. Maureen Hassman knows that’s a role she will soon play. Hassman is a Junior Elementary Education major at Iowa State. Hassman says the national dialog on gun control and school safety doesn’t deter her from what she’s wanted to do since she was a kid.

“The story about the teacher who hid her students at Sandy Hook and Things like that just are inspiring to me as a teacher to think we do protect these kids and it’s more of a challenge, I guess,” Hassman said.

A challenge that Iowa schools must face pretty much alone; As far as how they plan. There are no laws on the books that require the Iowa Department of Education to do anything with school emergency procedures.