Chattanooga summit to tackle school safety issues

The Sandy Hook Permanent Memorial is seen in Newtown, Connecticut, on Dec. 5. The names of the 20 first graders and six educators killed a short distance away at Sandy Hook Elementary School are engraved in concrete around a memorial pool with a sycamore tree in the middle. (AP Photo/Ted Shaffrey)

Security experts are set to gather in Chattanooga this week to discuss school safety at the Shields-Up Safety Summit.

The event comes as school safety has become a hot topic in the state, following the March shooting at a private Christian elementary school in Nashville that left seven dead, including the shooter. Tennessee lawmakers are also preparing to meet for a special session later this month, called by Gov. Bill Lee specifically to address gun policy and public safety.

Panelists will include a Metro Nashville police officer who responded to the school shooting, a Chattanooga-based security company and M6 Global Defense, a safety consulting firm founded by former U.S. Secret Service agents.

(READ MORE: Chattanooga private schools consider security following Nashville shooting)

Natalie Hammond, a survivor of the 2014 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School where 20 first graders and six educators were killed, is set to give the summit's keynote speech.

Hammond, who taught third grade at Sandy Hook, said those kinds of gatherings help her meet other survivors and grow the network of people working to keep schools safe across the country.

"The more we can expand the group and inform people and get people to think about it, I think the better off we're going to be," she said in a video interview Friday.

After the Sandy Hook shooting, Hammond said she felt it was her purpose to advocate for school safety. She didn't think she would still be doing the work almost 10 years later.

"I really thought, once we get out there, you know, things are going change and this isn't going to happen anymore," she said. "And unfortunately, we all know we're not living in that environment."

(READ MORE: What some Tennessee teachers say needs to change for safer schools)

Hammond, now a principal at another Connecticut elementary school, said she made some changes to the school's physical security when she started her current post — locks on doors, window protections and better camera coverage inside — but said developing a safe environment that stops attacks from occurring in the first place is most effective.

"I'm an elementary school principal," she said. "I don't want to have my building be like a fortress. I want it to be where children and staff feel comfortable and safe coming into work, into school each day."

She formed an incident response team and community safety plan to follow in case of an intruder, and the school has regular lockdown and evacuation drills to keep students prepared. She talks about her No. 1 priority so often, Hammond said, that students know to finish her sentence — "to keep us safe."

In Tennessee, Lee signed a sweeping school safety package earlier this year in response to the Covenant shooting. It provided $140 million to put a school resource officer in every public school in the state, a combined $54 million for security upgrades in private and public schools and allocated $8 million for hiring more behavioral health staff in schools.

(READ MORE: Republican lawmaker calls Tennessee Gov. Lee's special session on gun laws a 'counter-productive publicity stunt')

"I think similarly here in Connecticut in 2012, it kind of charged us to rethink school safety a lot," Hammond said.

Mike Matranga and Chris Caruso, with M6 Global Defense, agree with Hammond that the best way to approach school safety is by focusing on behavior, not only by hardening school buildings.

Often after a school shooting, Matranga said in a video interview, companies flood administrators and local governments with pitches for gadgets they say will improve safety.

"It's just something to sell rather than an actual solution that's rooted in science and in data and research," he said. "We do believe in technology, that is a pillar of what we promote in the holistic plan, but it is not priority No. 1."

Wednesday's summit, held at the National Medal of Honor Heritage Center near the Tennessee Aquarium, is set to start at 2 p.m. and end at 5 p.m., according to a news release.

Contact Ellen Gerst at or 423-757-6319.