In the wake of Friday's school shooting in Connecticut that left 26 people dead, including 20 children, many schools across the country are reviewing security plans, adding extra law enforcement patrols and readying counselors to handle students on their first day back since the incident.
Aaron Zalis, superintendent of Rolla Public Schools, stressed during an interview Monday afternoon with The Rolla Daily News, those actions have been ongoing for some time and will continue in the future throughout the district.
"We do advanced planning and continual refinement based on the knowledge interface we have with legal authorities," the superintendent said.
"(Planning for emergencies) doesn't just happen because of events like this," Zalis said.
"We want to reassure the people we serve that we do have protocols. We have a crisis plan ... I want people to know that we're capable of protecting our children ... We want to reassure that school is the safest place to be."
Zalis said many of the district's safety protocols are confidential for security purposes. For instance, in certain emergencies, the district has safe places to take students if they need to be removed from campus, but disclosing the locations could cause more harm.
According to the superintendent, the school district has a "very positive and productive relationship" with first responders in the area.
"We are a partner with the Rolla Police Department in many ways and they are good to provide us feedback on how to improve our safety processes. The VIPS program is one tangible example of our partnership," Zalis wrote in a letter to the school community.
That letter was sent to parents of school children in the district Sunday morning and is available on the Rolla Public School's website, http://rolla.k12.mo.us/
"We have a school messenger ... and every parent who enrolls a child has the ability to be contacted," the superintendent said.
"The shock from the event in Connecticut affects me profoundly. It affects me equally as a parent. I know it affects you," Zalis wrote.
Zalis said that in addition to having a police presence on the school's campuses, police officers and other emergency officials, such as firefighters and EMS personnel, train and conduct drills in the buildings so that they can become familiar with them and know the layouts before an emergency or disaster happens.
"We have communicated with our administrative team and with the RPD on the heels of this event and will continue to seek ways to learn from the tragedy," Zalis wrote in the letter.
Students, teachers and staff also take part in safety drills. "The drills are happening a lot," the superintendent said.
Additionally, the district has a safety coordinator who is responsible for bringing information to district administrators. "We also periodically seek input from staff," Zalis said.
Page 2 of 2 - "I like to think it's everyone's responsibility and that our parents and kids feel comfortable reporting things to our personnel," the superintendent said.
Zalis said to minimize the chances of certain incidents, district officials have to "strike an appropriate balance" in their safety measures, meaning that the schools can fully lock down their buildings, but that could make it uninviting to the families that the district serves.
Zalis said the district is taking an approach in which staff will not promote discussion of the incident, but any student is welcome to bring up the subject or their concerns and has the opportunity to talk to a counselor at any time.
"They're prepared," Zalis said of the counselors, adding that they are highly trained. Additionally, the district is sharing counselors with surrounding districts and vice versa, Zalis said.
Because some parents have chosen to shield their children from the media coverage of the shooting, "we want to support them," not go against their wishes, Zalis said.
"School is happening," he said Monday. "Our attendance has been fine and teachers and students are going about their business. We hope our communication reassures them that they want to get back to normal."
Zalis wrote in his letter, "Even though these events are rare, one is too many. We are not immune from what happens in our society ... Tragedies like this are a reminder to make sure no safety measure is overlooked.
Whether it is weather-related or human initiated, anytime something like this happens we take stock in what procedures we have in place and how we can improve."