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9:36 PM Tue, Oct. 23rd

Neutralizing threats: ERAU professor makes protecting local school a class project

Sacred Heart Principal Pamela Dickerson talks about the glass-paneled lockers that are among a number of security measures the school has implemented. (Les Stukenberg /The Daily Courier)

Sacred Heart Principal Pamela Dickerson talks about the glass-paneled lockers that are among a number of security measures the school has implemented. (Les Stukenberg /The Daily Courier)

PRESCOTT - Connecticut's Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2012 had a profound effect on Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University professor Tom Foley. The tragedy shook parents across the nation to the core, because 20 of the 26 fatalities were children ages 6 to 7.

Foley, on the faculty at ERAU's College of Security and Intelligence, thought his students could help prevent future deaths.

"I realized that we have the expertise to help schools with this sort of thing," Foley said. His first school on the list of places to call was Sacred Heart Catholic Elementary School, and Principal Pamela Dickerson was happy to participate.

"She was thrilled," Foley said, "She said, 'Yes, please come do this.'"

"I welcomed the opportunity to partner with Embry-Riddle," Dickerson said, calling the information provided "priceless."

On April 5, 2013, Foley's students descended on the school, taking notes and photographs as part of their threat assessment.

Over the course of a semester, the class produced a 150-page report, complete with diagrams, charts, and suggested changes the school could make to better protect students in the event of what officials call an "active-shooter scenario."

Dickerson was surprised with what the students found.

"It was eye-opening to see," she said. "The amount of things - small things - that we had fixed within two weeks" astonished her, she added.

Many fixes were easy - a teacher who had a note with a door-lock code posted where it could be seen was told to remove it.

Foley emphasizes that, short of holding school in a fortress, there is no way to keep a shooter out if he's determined to get in. The goal is to slow down the progress of a shooter to give responding police a chance to arrive.

Foley said Prescott Police estimated a five- to eight-minute emergency response time, so anything the school can do to hold up the suspect for that long increases the chance he can be apprehended.

"We want to delay the bad guy until the good guys can get here," Foley said.

Exterior doors now have security cameras and high-intensity LED lighting; classroom doors, which must have windows, have been retrofitted with laminated glass "that's hard to smash through. You can hit it with a hammer... and it will crack, but it won't give way," Foley said.

Easier and cheaper were procedural changes, such as developing the habit among the staff and faculty of closing doors, not propping them open.

Changes also were made at the Sacred Heart preschool - it's in the building that houses the church, which the public must access.

That required a wall to be built to isolate the preschool from the church. A quaint but unsecure wooden Dutch door was replaced with a stout metal door as well. Door hinges that could be easily defeated were eliminated.

"That was one of the things the students noticed" in their survey, Foley said. "So they've changed them."

Several of the changes were intended to make it easier for emergency responders to know where they - and the victims and suspects - are on the campus.

Maps are located in locked outdoor boxes, and signs now help make room numbers clear.

There are still some major projects left to do, such as more secure fencing and landscaping, but most of the suggestions have already been implemented.

"I was shocked. We presented (the survey) to Principal Dickerson on a Thursday... and within 24 hours, at least five of our recommendations" were completed, Foley said.

"It was great to have trained experts come through," Dickerson said. "In this day and age, you absolutely have to know what to do in case of an emergency, and this really helped."

Follow Scott Orr on Twitter @AZNewsguy.