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July 29, 2014

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CCSD, Metro officials re-emphasize commitment to safe schools

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Sam Morris

Rosemary Virtuoso from the Clark County School District’s Department of Student Threat Evaluation & Crisis Response addresses the Connecticut school shooting with the media Friday, Dec. 14, 2012.

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A school official holds a copy of the district's crisis-response guide. A copy exists in every principal's office for him or her to reference during emergency situations.

CCSD Response to School Shooting

Rosemary Virtuoso from the Clark County School District's Department of Student Threat Evaluation & Crisis Response addresses the Connecticut school shooting with the media Friday, Dec. 14, 2012. Launch slideshow »

A small red binder sits in the office of every Clark County school principal. It’s called a crisis-response guide, an easy-to-grab tool administrators hope to never touch.

Inside the soft, waterproof folder is a color-coded guide for dealing with emergencies: food contamination, earthquakes, fires, suspicious packages and the list goes on.

Toward the bottom of the guide, a light-brown tab is labeled “shooting/weapon use on campus,” a chilling scenario that’s become common fodder for school-safety discussions after repeated shootings at schools and universities.

A massacre Friday morning — 28 dead, including 20 children at a Connecticut elementary school and the shooter — thrust the school-safety discussion back into the limelight, prompting Las Vegas authorities to step up security and review crisis plans.

“This is a very, very tragic situation, and we just want to re-emphasize to our parents that we take school safety very seriously,” said Lt. Darnell Couthen, a member of the Clark County School District Police Department.

The crisis-response guide for principals is just part of the School District’s much broader plan, said Rosemary Virtuoso, coordinator of the student threat evaluation and crisis response department.

Without divulging many details, Couthen and Virtuoso said the district had a comprehensive plan to deal with any tragedy similar to the Connecticut shootings in a Clark County school. The plan includes regular training for staff and safety drills for students.

For children, it’s all about keeping instructions simple, Virtuoso said.

“They understand A to B, B to C,” she said. “They follow the very basic, simple actions. We rely on the teacher to understand the basics in managing the situation.”

Clark County superintendent Dwight Jones issued a statement Friday, largely echoing assurances provided by school police and crisis-response officials.

“We have many security measures that help prevent crime, from the design of our buildings to diligent staff trained to report any suspicious behavior and surveillance systems in place,” Jones wrote. “We cannot predict or prevent every incident in the nation’s fifth-largest school district, but we assure our parents that student safety is our priority and we are continually reviewing our processes to ensure we remain persisten in our efforts to prevent crime.”

In emergencies, district schools undertake lockdown procedures and the district uses an automated messaging system to quickly send information to parents, officials said.

Friday’s shooting at a Newtown, Conn., elementary school apparently happened after a teacher’s son entered the building and began firing, raising questions about school policies regarding visitors.

Clark County schools must follow the district’s visitor policy, Virtuoso said. The policy, in part, states, “The administration has the authority to prohibit the entry of any person to a facility of this district or to expel any person when there is reason to believe the presence of such person would be inimical to the good order of the facility.”

“We are going to look at those procedures to make sure we are in line,” Virtuoso said.

Authorities will track developments from Connecticut, noting what changes might be necessary to strengthen safety, just like the district did after the Columbine High School shooting in 1999 and others since then, Couthen said.

“Our hearts are heaving,” he said. “Anything we can learn from it, we will.”

On Friday, Metro Police officers visited every school, both public and private, in Clark County. Kevin McMahill, deputy chief of patrol for Metro, said the goal was twofold: easing residents’ fears and providing police presence in case of a copycat incident.

“The moment I heard about it this morning, the hairs on the back of my neck rose,” McMahill said. “We knew we had to take some immediate action here in our own city.”

A school police officer works full time at the Southern Nevada Counter-Terrorism Center, also known as the “fusion” center, McMahill said. It’s part of the law enforcement community’s strategy to work together on crisis prevention and response, he said.

Even so, McMahill urged community members to do their part by notifying authorities of any threats or suspicious activities, especially in places where crowds gather.

“If you see something that just doesn’t look right, call us,” he said.

In the past three decades, there have been several shootings on Clark County school campuses, two of which resulted in deaths.

In March 1982, Valley High School teacher Clarence Piggott Jr. was shot and killed by Patrick Lizotte, a student Piggott had taken under his wing. Lizotte, who is now serving two life sentences, wounded two other students before a police officer shot him.

Eight years later, in August 1990, a 15-year-old was charged with murder after fatally shooting fellow student Donnie Lee Bolden during a gang fight in the cafeteria of Eldorado High School.

In October 1999, two Clark High School students were shot as they stood at the northeast corner of the campus after school. They both survived.

There were 357 incidents of weapons possession at CCSD schools during the 2011-12 school year, representing 5.6 percent of all discipline incidents, according to state education data. There were 515 weapons possession incidents across the state. The data do not provide a breakdown of the weapons.

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