In the wake of one of the worst school shootings in U.S. history in Newtown, Conn., the people charged with giving Canadian kids a safe place to study are asking the same questions they asked after Columbine: Could it happen here? How can it be prevented?
Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty last week pledged $10-million toward securing the province's schools. The cash, he says, will go toward installing surveillance cameras and door security systems in all Ontario schools. Many schools across the province already lock all outside doors but the front one, where they monitor those entering.
The multimillion-dollar question is whether these pricey security methods prevent violent incidents, or frighten the students they're meant to protect. That's a particularly uncomfortable question given that gunman Adam Lanza shot the locks off doors on his way into Sandy Hook Elementary School.
"There's no question that security measures are important in terms of entrances and exits in schools," said Stuart Auty, president of the Canadian Safe Schools Network. But "what you don't want in a school is little children with anxieties raised. … A siege mentality needs to be avoided."
Compassionate concerns aside, Mr. Auty said, sending students to a school that makes them feel threatened or under suspicion can make it more likely troubled kids grow up to become violent adults.
"Schools are not the same kind of spaces as rock concerts, clubs or airports," argues a 2007 report after the death of 15-year-old Jordan Manners in a Toronto high school. "Schools should be welcoming, safe havens. … Security strategies that undermine these fundamental requirements may well come at too great a cost."
After Columbine High School in Colorado in 1999, when two students murdered 12 children and an adult, Manitoba revised its Public Schools Act and created an arm's-length body dedicated to ensuring the province's students were kept safe. Schools across Canada developed emergency plans, installed surveillance cameras, locked doors and scrutinized visitors. The case for measures was bolstered by shootings on Canadian soil: at a high school in Taber, Alta.; at Dawson College in Montreal; and the Jordan Manners shooting in Toronto.
Today, few Canadian schools have security guards or metal detectors. Schools in Ontario's Peel district hired security guards for its high schools, but only in response to a work-to-rule by teachers; the guards will be removed when the labour action ends.
Of greater concern for many teachers and administrators is what to do when the worst happens. Increasingly, schools are coming up with emergency response plans they practise regularly.
"We're sort of on hyper-alert," said Mary Hall, director of Safe Schools Manitoba. "There needs to be a way of keeping the kids safe and the staff safe – that's the bottom line. So, yes, it's certainly gone beyond the standard fire drill. And, unfortunately, I think that's a reflection of our society."