The report below was produced by the news division of WHYY, the Philadelphia public media outlet, and is republished here with permission.
Before Columbine and Newtown and Parkland, there was Our Lady of the Angels.
On Dec. 1, 1958, a fire broke out at that parochial school on Chicago’s West Side, killing 92 students and three nuns. The Our Lady of the Angels catastrophe shocked the country and spurred action, leading to the proliferation of fire drills, sprinklers and other protocols that have so far helped prevent another similar event from occurring in America.
Nearly two decades after the infamous massacre at Columbine High School in Colorado, why haven’t ghastly school shootings gone the way of ghastly school fires?
For Aaron Vanatta and other school safety experts, it’s a vexing question.
“You thought you’d see a lot more change a lot quicker,” said Vanatta, a school police officer in the Quaker Valley School District outside Pittsburgh and a regional director for the National Association of School Resource Officers. “But it didn’t really happen that way.”
That doesn’t mean there haven’t been changes since Columbine.
The protocol for confronting school shooters has just about reversed itself over 19 years.
“Those things did not exist in all of our buildings 20 years ago,” said Elizabeth Aldridge, Pennsbury’s director of pupil services.
For Aldridge, however, the change that stands out most is the increasing number of safety drills. Pennsbury now requires intruder drills every quarter, and that includes kindergarten classes.
But whereas fire drills — combined with other reforms — have helped snuff out the specter of major school infernos, school shootings persist. This despite the fact that schools have “hardened” their targets with new technology, raised awareness through training and drills and changed the way they intercept troubled students.
Part of the problem is circumstantial, said Amanda Klinger, co-founder of the nonprofit Educator’s School Safety Network. An attack from a gun-wielding human is simply harder to prepare for than a fire.
But she also believes the response to Columbine and Sandy Hook has been less coordinated than the response to the Our Lady of Angels fire in Chicago. As an example, she points to all the different types of drills schools do — intruder drills, active-shooter drills — many with their own distinct variations.
“How can we come to some sort of consistency so that everybody is increasing their level of preparedness?” she said.
Many also cite the nation’s gun laws and gun culture as causes of the continuing problem.
President Donald Trump has proposed allowing districts to arm teachers, theoretically further fortifying schools against potential assailants. A group of academics who study school violence recently released a list of suggestions that includes restricting gun access and increasing mental health services.
And as most have already heard, students across the country have staged school walkouts and are planning a march on Washington, D.C., this weekend, to call for more gun control. The rallies are another reminder that, while school safety looks different than it did 20 years ago, it confronts many of the same challenges.
This story was produced by the news division of WHYY, the Philadelphia public media outlet, and is republished with permission.