District officials consider school safety concerns

March 26, 2013

By Lillian O'Rorke

The Dec. 14 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School may have happened on the other side of the country, but phones were ringing in the Issaquah School District.

In the weeks following the shooting in Connecticut, district officials said they had an influx of parents calling to find out what was being done to keep students safe. In response to the heightened concerns, principals across the district sent out newsletters on the topic and held parent safety meetings.

“What we know is effective is being prepared,” said Jodi Bongard, the district’s executive director of elementary schools.

State law requires schools to have evacuation plans and to work with local emergency response agencies to come up with safety plans, as well as run monthly drills. Six of those each year must be fire drills, and at least one has to be a lockdown.

Bongard explained that the district is continually monitoring its drills and seeks feedback from local police and first responders. Principal evaluations are another checkpoint, she said, explaining that the reviews include checking to make sure a principal has an emergency plan in place and that it’s up to date.

On the plateau, Sammamish police visited several schools to talk safety with principals.

Issaquah has three police officers working within the district. Each of the three school resource officers is designated to one of the three comprehensive high schools. With the majority of their time spent in their assigned high schools, the police officers use the school day to do a number of things, including speak to classes about different laws, mentor students and conduct criminal investigations. The officers are also available to the elementary and middle schools, if needed.

School resource officers aren’t new. For years, the district has worked with different jurisdictions to insure the program stays in place. The cities of Issaquah and Sammamish now share the costs of the officers; King County, however, does not. Last year, the school district paid $187,665 for the officers.

Additionally, it spent another $133,000 on three high school campus security officers, whose duties include tracking security camera footage. Cameras are a district standard at all middle and high schools, as well as Creekside Elementary School (the most recently built school) and all elementary schools built in the future.

Maintaining and replacing cameras, according to district Chief Financial Officer Jake Kuper, costs between $20,000 and $30,000 every year. The district also earmarked $2.65 million in the 2012 bond for camera installation and upgrades at all of its older buildings.

 

Safety reviews

The district reviews its safety plans and procedures every year, Bongard said. Rapid response systems, she added, are usually updated every October and had already been updated this year when the district revisited them again in the wake of Sandy Hook.

“Is there anything else we can do?” she said they asked themselves.

While no major changes have been made at Issaquah’s schools, some have made a few tweaks. Discovery Elementary School decided to lock its wing doors, so visitors have to pass by the office in order to enter the school.

“Now, again, is that going to stop somebody if they have an intent to do harm? Probably not,” Bongard said. “But, it makes us aware that we have people in the building that didn’t check in, and we can respond appropriately.”

People being able to walk into schools freely and unchecked has Creekside parent Erin Stines concerned. She attended a school safety presentation in January by her son’s principal Robin Earl. After the meeting, she said Earl did a great job of easing her worries about other safety issues, but that she was unhappy with the district’s decision to leave elementary school front doors unlocked.

“I strongly disagree with this decision and believe that if it was left to the vote of the parents, the parents would vote to keep front doors locked,” Stines wrote in a letter to The Press. “Keeping the front doors unlocked and counting on parents and visitors to sign in and out seems hopelessly optimistic.”

Later on, in a phone interview, Stines explained that the high school she went to as well as her son’s preschool used a buzzer system. Both of those were private institutions, she added. Over all, Stines said, she feels the district is doing a great job with its preparedness but that it is missing a vital piece of the puzzle: controlling the first point of entry.

 

Extra steps

Stines isn’t alone in her thinking. Across the state and the country, schools are bulking up security. Schools in Birmingham, Mich., are locking the front doors of all school buildings during the day and have hired security guards to regulate visitors. Several schools in Wisconsin, inducing Pewaukee Lake Elementary School, have added a locking mechanism with a buzzer system to their front door. Teachers at Alabama’s Orange Beach Elementary School now have panic buttons to wear around their necks, or keep somewhere within reach should an armed trespasser come on campus.

Closer to home, five deputies have been assigned to schools in unincorporated Snohomish County. The cost of the program is expected to reach $1 million and the unit will not be able to cover many of the 106 schools in that area.

In the Snoqualmie Valley, the school district is in early discussions with local police to figure out if it’s possible to dedicate an officer to the schools there. And in Olympia, the state Senate voted 47-0 Feb. 11 for a bill that would require all school districts to install panic alarms by Dec. 1, 2014. The bill also suggests districts install perimeter security control mechanisms on all campuses.

In his new eBook, “Safer Schools,” Bob Bennett, who moved from Sammamish to Woodinville nine months ago, suggests that armed security officers should be put in every school.

“The only way I know how to stop an armed outsider from bringing a weapon in the school is to stop them at the door,” said Bennett, who has worked in security for 15 years.

He said each school should be equipped with a walk-through metal detector, which costs about $5,000, he estimated. On top of that, Bennett added, each needs three armed guards to keep an eye on different areas of a school.

Security like that, he estimated, would run about $180,000 per school and would include an officer’s salary, training and uniform. If his estimate were accurate, it would cost Issaquah more than $4.3 million to put guards and metal detectors at all 24 of its schools.

 

Not everyone thinks that is a good idea.

“Our dollars could be so much better spent. We don’t need armed guards at schools. We don’t. Seriously,” said Caroline Brown, president of the school district’s PTSA. “It just breeds a very weird atmosphere in schools. They are schools. They are a place of academic learning where we nurture children to grow up. We don’t need guns around them.”

If his suggestion isn’t taken to heart, Bennett said one of the best things that can be done is putting plans and protocol into place for if the unthinkable happens.

That is exactly what the school district already does, said Brain Deagle, president of the Issaquah School Board. He added that the value of being prepared was made evident Sept. 20, when Skyline High School was closed after someone threatened to target the school for a mass shooting.

“We implemented our process and procedure, and the staff, principal and teachers all executed that very well,” Deagle said. “It was something that we had already had in place and are continuing to update and improve. It was not something we just created when that incident happened.

“Parents deserve to be assured the their kids are safe,” he added. “And that is the No. 1 priority of the district.”

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