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One year later: How Sandy Hook impacted school security in the East

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GREENVILLE, N.C. - This Saturday marks one year since the deadly shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn.

We all remember that morning when Adam Lanza burst into the school, shooting and killing 20 children and six teachers, before turning the gun on himself. It was the second deadliest school shooting in our nation's history behind the Virginia Tech shooting spree.

The event ignited a debate on gun control and prompted schools across the country to re-examine and bulk up security. Now, a year later 9 On Your Side is digging deeper into how the tragedy impacted safety in our local schools.

At Morehead City Primary, visitors must step in front of a video camera and reveal their identity before school staff will let them come inside. It’s a security upgrade that's now in every school across the county.

"Our parents would probably say that we're not quite as inviting as we were at one point in time, but we have aired on the side of safety,” says Wanda Nelson Fowler, Morehead City Primary’s principal. “If children do not feel safe in your classrooms, they can't learn."

One year after Sandy Hook, parents in the East say they understand and support the new safety precautions.

"I don't think it's an inconvenience at all,” says father Sandy Howard of Morehead City Primary’s advanced buzz-in system. “It only takes a moment, there's always somebody there, and they let you right in and they know who is in the school during the day."

Carteret County Superintendent Dan Novey says the district already had several safety plans in the works before the Newtown tragedy happened. But he says the horrific event gave his teachers and administrators a greater sense of urgency.

"Because of that, you begin to take a look at what you're doing and is there more that you can do?" he says.

Leaders at Pitt County Schools, the largest district in the east, have taken a similar approach.

"We want to be proactive instead of reactive," says Jeff Hudson, the district’s safety specialist.

He says after Sandy Hook, putting video cameras in every elementary school became the top priority. Cameras are now installed at front doors, in hallways and over parking lots at more than half the schools.

Next up are buzz-in systems and a $30,000 board-approved deal with a Charlotte-based consulting company, Mark III, that's helping each school identify problem areas and develop a district-wide safety plan.

"We're over half a million to $1 million and it's going to aggress as we go along because camera systems are not cheap, the technology is not cheap," Hudson says.

The big investment is a growing trend, despite the fact that statistics show the chance of a child being killed in school is rare. Annual spending on school security systems across the nation is projected to hit $5 billion by 2017, up from $3 billion last year, according to Colorado-based research company, IHS.

So where are school systems getting that kind of money?

Beaufort County Superintendent Don Phipps says it's a combination of local and state tax dollars, grants, and fund-matching deals for things like panic buttons and school resource officers.

"You constantly are making sure that you're tightening up any areas where you've got a weakness," Phipps says.

He says his district has set aside $50,000 in this past year's capital budget for school security improvements, but says it's going to take more than just money to ensure staff and students are safe.  

“Probably the most important thing outside of the drills and preparation, I think is for our folks to be vigilant and to be ever mindful of their surroundings and the things that are going on,” Phipps says. “And if they see something that looks unusual, if there's a person who's out of place, we want folks not to be offended if we ask for id badges or for them to identify who they are."

It’s that vigilance that school leaders in the East agree is the key to preventing a tragedy like Newtown from happening here.

"We have to keep our eyes and ears open and never let our guard down," Novey says.

All schools in our state use emergency automated call alerts and practice lock-down drills several times a year. New state laws will also require them all to give keys and schematic drawings of school buildings to local law enforcement and install panic buttons in each administration area by July 2015.

Earlier this year, Governor Pat McCrory created the Center for Safer Schools to develop school safety recommendations for all districts. They recently gave him a list of 80 suggestions that include anonymous tip hot lines, alternatives to out-of-school suspensions and expanding bullying prevention efforts.

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