June 2014 | 0 Comments  Average 5 out of 5

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In the aftermath of mass school shootings like those at Columbine High School and Sandy Hook Elementary School—in addition to frequent smaller attacks, such as the recent fatal shooting at a high school near Portland, Ore.—enhanced security has become the new reality for schools. The challenge facing K-12 administrators is how to keep students safe while maintaining an open and inviting educational environment in which students can learn and, at times, just enjoy being kids.

“You want to do a good job of making sure you have controlled access,” said Rex Barrett, acting director of Security Services for Prince George’s County (Md.) Public Schools (PGCPS). Cameras, fences, entry systems and other devices not only provide a visual and physical deterrent to would-be attackers, they also create a “time barrier” if someone does attempt to enter the school. “The longer it takes for a potential threat or suspect to get into the building, the faster you can notify police,” he said. “You allow law enforcement that lag time to get there and deal with the threat.”

“You can’t study or learn if you don’t feel safe at school.”

—Bill Jelkin, director of Student Services, Millard Public Schools (Omaha, Neb.)

Making students feel safe has always meant focusing on physical factors such as the size and layout of buildings, access points, and the number of students, Barrett said. “But now, things that we assumed would never be issues are. Newtown changed that.”

State-of-the-art physical security systems can be prohibitively expensive for some schools and districts. Those that lack the funds for such ambitious capital improvements can focus on education and training, which are just as essential and relatively inexpensive. For example, to promote safety, some schools are focusing on consistent safety drills and relationship building in the school community.

"Have the conversation with the staff and the students and make sure they are trained in the event of an emergency. You don’t want people making decisions under duress that they haven’t practiced,” Barrett said.

"The delicate balance for a school district is intrusion versus security and promoting a welcoming atmosphere while trying to maintain a secure atmosphere. You can’t study or learn if you don’t feel safe at school,” said Bill Jelkin, director of Student Services at Millard Public Schools (MPS) in suburban Omaha, Neb. MPS security resource officers recently began using small lapel cameras that allow them to videotape incidents. Some students may see those devices as invasive, but they can improve security, he said.

Locking Doors and Building Relationships

In 2011, a student suspended from Millard South High School for trespassing on school property returned to the school with a concealed gun. He shot and killed the assistant principal and wounded the principal, then fled the school and killed himself. That tragedy forced MPS to reassess its security and student discipline procedures.

The 23,500-student district made holistic changes designed to prevent future attacks, Jelkin said. The student followed all the proper procedures to enter the school; a security officer who didn’t know that the student had been suspended admitted him. Now the school distributes photos of suspended students to security personnel and advises them on the length and terms of the suspension.

Administrators also meet with suspended students and their parents. “For students, this is a big event in their lives, worthy of a sit-down conversation about where do we go from here,” Jelkin said. The district is working on ways to help students coming off suspension re-integrate successfully into school, which benefits all members of the school community.

“Students not only understand ‘see something, say something,’ but they also know who to tell and feel comfortable approaching them.”

—Rex Barrett, acting director of security services, Prince George’s County (Md.) Public Schools

Detroit Country Day School (DCDS) values its close-knit culture and sense of community. Ensuring safety and security at the 1,600-student school is a cooperative effort, said Susan Murphy, director of external affairs. Because of its culture, DCDS has chosen to emphasize that it is a safe, inviting place to learn rather than a high security zone.

“People have a heightened awareness of safety and security issues, but they feel comfortable bringing up those issues and confident they will be addressed. I can’t imagine that we would want or welcome that kind of compound mentality because it would not be conducive to the learning environment,” she said.

The school has a team of security professionals on all four of its campuses, and administrators review and fine-tune safety measures regularly, Murphy said. The school keeps students informed, and, as a result, they are comfortable with the efforts.

Students take part in safety drills addressing all types of emergencies—from tornadoes to lockdowns. “With practice, they become comfortable with them,” Murphy said. “They don’t panic when a drill comes around. They know what they’re supposed to do and they know that they’re prepared if the real event occurs.”

Building rapport between security personnel and students gets kids involved in their school’s safety. “They will tell you, ‘Hey, you might want to check Johnny’s backpack,’” PGCPS’ Barrett said. “Students not only understand ‘see something, say something,’ but they also know who to tell and feel comfortable approaching them.” Creating relationships also includes specialized training in mediation and conflict resolution for security officers, he said.

DCDS’ separate campuses for its lower, junior, middle, and high school students present physical security challenges, but it enables administrators to tailor the message more specifically to the age group, Murphy said. In many schools, for example, lockdown drills are announced ahead of time to avoid frightening students. Younger students might hear more about “stranger danger,” while high school students are more likely to discuss active shooter scenarios.

Passing the Test

Even the youngest DCDS students know the security rules. Headmaster Glen Shilling found that out last year when he tried to enter the grades three to five building through a locked side door. A student observed him but did not open the door. Shilling had to walk around to the front and have staff buzz him in like any other visitor.

“The student knew that you don’t open the door for anyone and that security is a responsibility,” Murphy said. Shilling tracked down the student and congratulated him. “He reinforced the message that he had made exactly the right decision,” Murphy said. “The student was a hero that day.”

For younger students, the lockdown drill has taken a place in the traditional lineup of fire and natural disaster exercises. Barrett, however, does not believe students will eventually take that drill for granted. “As time goes on, we will get better at [lockdown] drills and it will be natural.”

He cited a recent lockdown at a PGCPS high school that was prompted by reports of a robbery nearby. “The officers came to the school and they were surprised at how quiet it was,” he said. “They couldn’t tell if anybody was in the school or not. That comment to me said that they’re getting it.”

By Julie Britt, UE communications associate


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