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US schools ramp up use of safety drills, security

FILE - In this Dec. 14, 2012, file photo, Carlee Soto uses a phone to get information about her sister, Victoria Soto, a teacher at the Sandy Hook elementary school in Newtown, Conn., after a gunman killed over two dozen people, including 20 children. Victoria Soto, 27, was among those killed. U.S. public schools beefed up security measures with safety drills and parent notification systems in the years surrounding the massacre at Connecticut's Sandy Hook Elementary School, according to a government survey released Thursday, May 21, 2015. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill, File)

WASHINGTON (AP) — Safety drills, parent notification systems, and other safety measures in U.S. public schools grew in popularity in the years surrounding the massacre at Connecticut’s Sandy Hook Elementary School.

A government survey released Thursday shows the uptick came during a four-year span that saw an overall decrease in violent crime reported by schools, but one that included high-profile incidents such as the Newtown, Connecticut, shootings in December 2012 that left 20 children and six educators dead.

The findings, from the 2013-14 school year, come from the National Center for Education Statistics.

The survey found that 88 percent of public schools had a written plan of how to respond to an active shooter, and that 7 out of 10 had drills to practice the plan. About three-quarters of schools reported using security cameras, and 43 percent said they used security personnel at least once a week.

JoAnn Bartoletti, the executive director for the National Association of Secondary School Principals, said it’s encouraging to see school safety moving in a positive direction. She said one aspect the survey fails to measure is the efforts schools have undertaken to create a more nurturing environment.

“As the Secret Service, the FBI and numerous researchers have confirmed over the years, the most effective way to prevent acts of violence in schools is to build trusting relationships with students and others in the community, so threats come to light quickly — and more important, so threats are deterred,” Bartoletti said in a statement.

Jayne Ellspermann, principal of the 2,600-student West Port High School in Ocala, Florida, said she thinks security cameras and safety drills are important, but a big piece of the puzzle is working with students so they understand they can go to educators with help and making sure all students know it’s their responsibility to help keep their school safe.

“We do have cameras, but I truly believe that students are doing the right thing because they feel safe on campus rather than they are doing the right thing because there may be cameras,” Ellspermann said.

Even before the Newtown killings, schools had been working more closely with local law enforcement and ramping up other school security measures, said Ronald Stephens, executive director of the National School Safety Center.

“I think something like Sandy Hook certainly punctuates the need to engage additional security strategies, but I really see it as an ongoing trend,” he said.

Stephens said he believes the work has been a factor in a decrease in overall school crime.

The survey showed 65 percent of public schools reporting one violent incident in school, such as a rape, fight, robbery or threat of physical attack. That’s down from 74 percent in the 2009-10 school year, when the survey was last administered.

The findings were based on a survey sent to school principals. Among the other results:

–About 8 in 10 schools reported having a parent notification system that automatically notifies parents in case of an emergency, compared with about 6 in 10 schools four years earlier.

–Slightly less than half — 47 percent — of schools reported having a system that allowed someone to report a crime anonymously, compared with 36 percent four years earlier.

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