Newtown. Columbine. Virginia Tech. Those are just a few headlines that strike right at the heart of every parent and pose questions including, "Is my child safe? What’s being done to keep him/her safe at his/her school?"
Schools such as Adel-DeSoto-Minburn, Dallas Center-Grimes, Waukee, and Woodward-Granger are all taking steps to increase site security at their current and soon-to-be-built facilities to prevent tragedies and lockdowns.
Dr. David Wilkerson, superintendent for the Waukee Community School District, said it is no accident that passersby see the cars of the Waukee Police School Resource Officers (SRO) parked prominently out front of the Waukee High School. Likewise, Waukee’s purchase of the Raptor Visitor Management software that provides real-time background checks designed to prevent unauthorized entrance by outsiders and print out photo IDs for approved visitors.
Given Waukee’s explosive growth — on average more than 450 additional students per year — Wilkerson conceded the term "older school building" is relative. But, he said, the district has been upgrading its older buildings to more contemporary and limited access practices.
Wilkerson said there is also the management issue of where real-time decisions should be made. Waukee principals and their teachers and staff develop their own site-specific safety plans based on SRO advice. Indeed, with expected addition of 60 new teachers, understanding their schools safety plans are a key part of their orientation.
Establishing a rapport and a high level of trust between students and the on-site SROs is a key factor, said Greg Dufoe, superintendent of Adel-DeSoto-Minburn Community School District. In particular, he cited the effort of SRO Terry Wright in building the trust needed, and he stressed the ongoing need to control access to school buildings via a monitored main entrance.
Dufoe noted that elementary schools are by nature controlled access sites: Pupils are brought to school in the mornings and leave in the afternoon. Area high schools, though, have students off to college-level classes, teams and others coming and going throughout the school day. And, he added, there is the nature of the students themselves. For example, a long-running dispute between high school students –without intervention – could have serious consequences, a dispute between fourth graders perhaps a little less so.
In Waukee, Wilkerson echoed the need for trust and communication. "(I tell students) you see something, you (hear) something? Tell the SRO… tell the principal… tell your teacher, but tell an adult on the staff," he said.
At Dallas-Center Grimes, the elementary schools were upgraded to "buzz-in" access this summer. The high school is, for now, a work in progress.
In any case, Superintendent Scott Grimes said the mandate is "to treat everyone with dignity and respect while still providing the security we need."
Grimes and his safety committee have, in consultation with law enforcement agencies, put great emphasis on "real-time" decision-making by the teacher in the classroom.
"We can’t prepare for everything," Grimes said. "But we can make sure we have created a safe environment. For example, if there’s a situation that you, as a teacher, feel uncomfortable with or frightened by, evacuate the classroom.
"The idea is to have options, not just an automatic move to lockdown."
Grimes said that in reviewing the Columbine, Newtown and Virginia Tech tragedies, law-enforcement experts have found that the real-time decisions made on the spot –while often themselves tragic –undoubtedly saved lives.
Some of that thinking is not necessarily intuitive. "Law-enforcement experts tell us that you are far better off running into an open field— even under gunfire— than to try to hide under a desk," he said. "You want to minimize the time in danger."
DC-G’s security committee, comprised of administrators, principals and teachers, meet monthly and drills are conducted often. As is typical for the area, DC-G’s high school presents a greater challenge than the elementary schools due to student parking lots and more entrances. An important part of the solution, Grimes said, is to make the front entrance the primary source of access.
Due to the costs involved, Woodward-Granger is approaching the security issue in phases, Superintendent Brad Anderson said.
"The idea is to push traffic into the office," said Anderson, adding the initial solution is to create a double-corridor system in each school. Currently, he said, it’s much too easy for a visitor to be buzzed in, and dash through the main corridors without examination.
Anderson said some of the basic work, was begun during the holiday break, and that the construction during the break is less disruptive to the school day. He expects additional construction during spring break.
Each school presents its own challenges. At the high school in Woodward, an important issue the large number of doors in the building and who is allowed access through them. And price is very much an object.
"A card reader costs about $4,000 a door," Anderson said. Some technology, while impressive, is simply too expensive for a small school district. A good example is the Raptor system that scans drivers’ licenses and runs real-time background checks.
"But for us, it’s not cost-effective,"Anderson said.
A major concern is to maintain a sense of balance.
"We don’t want to be a prison or Fort Knox," Anderson added, stating increased security won’t be instantly accepted by everyone. "People are used to having easy access to their schools."
Although measures are being placed to increase site security, a perfect solution is not attainable, according to Jodi Drake, president of the Woodward-Granger Parent Teacher Organization (PTO).
The changes in her district, she said, are likely to felt the hardest at the elementary school in Granger.
"It’s the small-town sense of community," she said. "We’ll lose the ability to walk in and have lunch with your kids. It will be hard for some people to accept."
But for area superintendents, school security is now a way of life and plans to implement a secure system is in an effort to make sure all students, teachers, and administration staff are safe.