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Newtown anniversary: School in Chicago suburb leads the way in keeping kids safe

NBC's Jeff Rossen reports on an elementary school in Niles, Ill., that is using technology in a number of innovative ways to safeguard itself.

Don’t visit Viola Nelson Elementary School in Niles, Ill., if there’s a warrant out for your arrest. All guests must present a photo i.d. before they can get past the staffer at the school’s locked doors, and when they do a computer runs an instant criminal background check.

As the anniversary of Newtown looms, security experts say the grade school in suburban Chicago is a model of the sort of technology, security training and forethought that can prevent a worst-case scenario.

“What the Nelson School is doing is absolutely correct,” said safety consultant Sal Lifrieri, a former director of security at the New York City Office of Emergency Management. “They understand the reality and are taking the steps necessary to protect students.”

For complete coverage of the Newtown anniversary, click here.

“We’re not expecting schools to do the impossible, we’re expecting them to do what’s reasonable,” said Dr. Ronald Stephens, executive director of the National School Safety Center, “and this is a good example of that.”

East Maine School District 63 has committed $5 million to add extra security to Nelson and its six other schools, which together serve more than 3,600 students.

Visitors to Nelson find that when they go through the school’s front doors, they’re actually entering a security vestibule. On the other side of the vestibule are the doors to the school area itself, which are locked. Inside the vestibule is a window where visitors must present their i.d. to a secretary.

After the background check, via software called Raptor, an approved visitor gets an ID badge.  In case of an emergency, the secretary can pull down a bullet-resistant gate. The secretary can also hit a panic-button under her desk and alert local police. In fact, there’s a panic button in every single classroom.

Students at Viola H. Nelson Elementary School in suburban Chicago. The school has instituted a security plan that includes instant background checks for visitors and lockdown drills.

Nelson Principal Jean LeBlanc said the technology doesn’t interfere with the school’s mission.

“Most of what we have in place here, the kids don’t really even notice,” said LeBlanc. “They don’t necessarily see all the things that we have in place. They just focus on student learning.”

At least as important as Raptor and the panic buttons, however, are the measures that require very little technology, like lockdown drills, which Nelson Elementary conducts on a regular basis. Security experts say that lockdown drills are the most effective protection against intruders.

Students are trained to stay close to each other and to their teacher during "Code Red" lockdowns. They’re supposed to gather in a corner and stay out of sight and silent. Classroom doors are locked, the shades come down, and the lights go off.

Two students told NBC News that the drills made them feel safe.

A fifth-grade boy named Blez said he felt safer than in his old school because his old school didn’t have the drills.

Olivia, also in fifth grade, said she understood why the drills were necessary. “It was pretty terrifying and sad what happened to Sandy Hook,” she said. “The world is kind of scary, so it can happen, and we have to be prepared.”

But security experts noted that school security is about much more than school shootings, which, though tragic, are rare.

Said Lifrieri, “On a daily basis schools deal with sexual predators, custodial interference, and other dangerous matters. …These systems like (background) checks and lockdown drills are very effective to combat these risks.”

At one of the schools in Nelson Elementary’s district, in fact, the new Raptor software addressed one of those risks. The background check system identified a deliveryman as a registered sex offender. He was stopped before he could get anywhere near the students.

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