Madison police are keeping a closer watch on city schools since the December mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., while teachers and other school staff are being trained as first responders in the event of a similar tragedy here.
"The school district has gotten much more focused on safety because of what's been going on across our country," said Assistant Chief John Davenport. "What they have done is reached out to us to amp things up a little bit."
School staff, from secretaries to principals, are also learning lessons from Sandy Hook, said Luis Yudice, coordinator of school safety for the Madison School District.
"What became clear is that we really need to look at our teachers, our principals and our school secretaries as first responders. They are the first line of defense in our schools," Yudice said, adding that by the time police arrive at the scene of something like a mass shooting, "the damage is done."
District training is now focusing on preparing teachers and other school staff to make early critical decisions that could save lives, he said.
The school district and police department have a long history of working together, with a high priority on safety, Davenport and Yudice said.
Now, officers have been asked to spend more time around schools when possible, driving by as well as stopping in and talking with teachers and students, Davenport said.
Along with higher visibility, officers who work near elementary and middle schools are becoming more familiar with the layouts of the buildings.
"We've always had that familiarity with the high schools because we have (educational resource officers)," Davenport said. "This is kind of an extension of that."
Police also have a flash drive with building designs for every school that can be downloaded to squad car computers, Yudice said.
The Madison Police Department has an educational resource officer in each of the city's four main high schools.
But police normally have minimal routine contact with elementary and middle schools, on which the new efforts are focused, Davenport said.
"We've extended that to our private schools as well," he said, adding that police also have become familiar with those schools' emergency response protocols.
Yudice said there have been no major incidents at the district's schools since the new initiatives began.
But school staff regularly work to stay ahead of problems -- such as custody disputes or restraining orders involving students and their family members -- that could escalate.
Some schools have had police observe their "Code Red" emergency drills and offer feedback.
"It's also an opportunity for us to see how are they going to react under those circumstances," Davenport said. "For our responding officers going in, they have some idea about what school officials are doing."
It also lets school staff know how police will respond, Yudice said.
One outcome has been better signage to help officers find room numbers quickly, Davenport said.
All elementary and middle schools now also have an assigned liaison officer, usually a beat officer, to be a point person for sharing information.
While the new initiatives don't provide a lot of time for officers to get to know students -- with an eye toward early intervention for potential problems -- Yudice said the district has several ongoing opportunities for such interactions.
They include the educational resource officers in the high schools and a 14-week Classes on Personal Safety (COPS) program, in which fourth- and fifth-graders learn about making good decisions concerning behaviors that could put them in harm's way, including bullying, using drugs and alcohol, and associating with street gangs, Yudice said.
District staff also participate in a weekly conference call with police and others to discuss any conflicts that have emerged in the community involving students.
"We're always trying to improve what we do," Yudice said of the district's safety efforts. "We feel we are well prepared. We always feel we can do better."