Updated Saturday, December 15, 2012 at 12:31 PM
Yet another school shooting in another part of the country on Friday left many here asking: What can Washington state schools do to prevent a similar tragedy?
The answer: Not much, according to school officials and safety experts, many of whom called for a broader conversation about gun control and mental health.
State law is largely silent on school-violence prevention, although it does require that administrators create evacuation-route maps, develop incident response plans and conduct monthly safety drills. Some schools take limited prevention measures beyond that — using community-resource officers, threat-assessment teams or keeping all except one entrance locked during the day. But very few use larger measures like metal detectors at building entrances. The focus on incident response is appropriate, officials say, because shootings are hard to predict.
"Somebody with a gun who wants to get into one of our schools badly enough could do so," said Bruce Kuennen of the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs. "Even if you have guards and metal detectors, they could walk in and shoot the people at the front door and then keep shooting. It's about being prepared and responding in a way that can lessen the damage."
Kuennen, whose group coordinates the school mapping, said proper response plans and trained staff can limit the number of victims by getting children and teachers to safety in an efficient manner.
But preventing an incident entirely is about much more than schools, officials said.
A spokesman for Randy Dorn, the state's top education official, emphasized mental-health awareness.
State Rep. Reuven Carlyle pointed to questions like whether background checks should be done on buyers at gun shows.
"Realistically there is no way to safely secure 1 million students in thousands of schools in our state against this sort of insanity," said Carlyle, D-Seattle. "As we mourn as a nation, we need to move forward with a thoughtful dialogue about common-sense, rational gun control that would make us all safer."
Like elsewhere in the country, many of the safety procedures in Washington's schools were crafted after the 1999 shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado, updated after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, and revised after the Virginia Tech shootings in 2007.
Most recently, the Legislature voted to require schools to conduct annual lockdown and evacuation drills in addition to frequent fire and earthquake drills.
The laws here are above average but still need work, said Martin Speckmaier, a former Edmonds police officer who now conducts school-safety training across the country.
In particular, he noted that it's only recommended, but not required, for schools to have threat-assessment teams, which identify, assess and manage potential threats.
In addition, he said "not a single school in Washington state" uses metal detectors and many still keep exterior doors unlocked.
Bill Williams, executive director of the state PTA, offered support for Washington's laws and cautioned against overly protective measures.
"I don't think we want our schools to become impenetrable forces," he said. "Parents want to have access to their kids, and frankly if you limit the number of entrances and exits, you create other types of dangers in terms of the ability to escape."
But Seattle Police Chief John Diaz said at a Friday news conference that metal detectors may someday be necessary in schools.
"You hate a world like that, but it may occur," he said.
Administrators at several Puget Sound public-school districts said they lock doors during the day and work closely with police after reports of suspicious activity.
In Seattle, safety decisions are up to individual schools' principals, though central administrators recommend that schools focus on their safety plans and maintain one point of entry, said Seattle Public Schools spokeswoman Lesley Rogers.
Asked whether the district will consider metal detectors in the future, Rogers paused.
"I think a lot of conversations are going to happen, across the U.S."
Brian M. Rosenthal: 206-464-3195 or email@example.com.