As superintendents across the nation finalize their 2013-2014 budgets, many are allocating more monies toward upgrading school security in light of the tragic shootings in Sandy Hook, Conn., and Midland City, Ala. School officials are reevaluating campus entry points and teaming with law enforcement on training and prevention, and some plan to post armed guards at every school site.
Americans reeled at the news of 20 students and six school employees shot dead at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., Dec. 14. They had a similar response after school bus driver Charles Poland was gunned down while protecting the children on his bus from an armed intruder, who ended up taking one boy and holding him hostage for days.
The sense of danger — and responsibility — is heightened when you head up a school district and have to make tough decisions on the best way to protect your staff members and students, whether they are on-site or riding the school bus.
In response to the Newtown school massacre, the Enfield Board of Education in Connecticut in March approved posting armed guards in all 11 public schools this fall, becoming the second in the state to take this step, following the lead of North Branford.
On March 28, the Newtown Legislative Council reviewed the 2013-2014 budget proposal that earmarks $420,000 in the town’s contingency fund to pay for an armed police presence at all district schools. The Newtown Bee also reported that an additional $150,000 was approved to create a $50,000 grant pool for each local private school to enhance on-site security. Residents and taxpayers will vote on this year’s budget referendum April 23.
Superintendent of Schools Janet Robinson said the district is applying for a federal grant through Project SERV (School Emergency Response to Violence) that would help cover recovery costs from the school shooting. Though SERV grants are temporary — they typically last 15 months and can be renewed for three, for a total of 18 months — she asked that Newtown receive a four-year grant because of the gravity of the crime.
At the National Conference on Education produced by American Association of School Administrators in February, Robinson told STN there isn’t a single person in Newtown who was not impacted by the shooting rampage. While she was unable to attend a Feb. 21 budget hearing due to the conference, she said she was certain dozens of parents would turn out to demand a heightened security presence at every school.
“I know there will be parents packing the halls to say we want more security, and I’m sure it’s that way all over the country,” said Robinson. “And there will be many more budget meetings. They go hand in hand — if you’re going to have additional security, you need additional funding.”
Security on the School Bus
Paul Andrews, director of professional development and government services for the Massachusetts State Association of School Superintendents, oversees training programs for school chiefs statewide. Since the Sandy Hook shooting, he said talk of violence prevention and training has risen to a clamor.
“We’re planning to teach a lot of superintendents in Massachusetts what they and other employees can do to protect their schools and be proactive, like locking doors or throwing an object at an assailant,” said Andrews, who served 15 years as a superintendent and seven years as an assistant superintendent. “The reality is, you can’t do that on the bus. The bus is a whole different issue. But if we call the bus an extension of the classroom, how do we provide them the security and safety on the bus while they get where they need to go?”
Though officials are currently focusing more on school building security, Andrews added that many people there are weighing placing attendants on every school bus for extra security and discipline control.
“I think this is something that has to be looked at, following Sandy Hook, having someone to keep the kids in line and watch out for dangers. Not an armed person,” he continued. “I’m concerned about the drivers doing what they should be doing, which is driving the bus.”
Merrianne Dyer, superintendent of Gainesville (Ga.) City Schools, told STN that after the Sandy Hook shooting, district officials reviewed their safety plan, made revisions and required all staff, including transportation, to undergo online training for active shooter drills.
“The most important action we can do is to make sure we are following procedures in our safety plan and we are practicing the drills. Our after-action review from Sandy Hook was helpful in revising the active shooter response,” said Dyer. “We have school resource officers in every school, and they include our local law enforcement in their monthly meetings.”
She noted that the district’s record of incidences, which potentially include violent situations in schools, have all involved parental offenders. When there are child-custody conflicts, parents often “bring the fight” to school, she said.
“With our buses, drivers are on the road with no backup, and that’s even more volatile. So it’s something we think about a lot. To address that, one of the things we’ve done is hold parents more accountable if the child rides the bus.” Dyer continued. “The only prevention is to educate the students and make sure the parents know what you expect on the bus.”
In addition, district officials are considering requiring background checks for all school volunteers, not just mentors.
“Buses are a very vulnerable,” she added. “When drivers open that door, there is no guarantee what’s on the other side.”
Less Access, More Vigilance
Superintendent Dr. Marlin Berry of the Olathe (Kansas) Unified School District said school officials immediately took a closer look at school entry points post-Sandy Hook so that administrators could see who was entering the site.
“The first thing we did was tighten back what we had,” Berry recalled. “We have cameras we use to buzz people into our schools, and they must show identification. In most of our schools, we have pinch points where you can only enter the campus through the office.”
The district also launched a two-month study with local law enforcement to gain their insight and expertise about which technology or tools might enhance the security of their schools. “We really rely on professionals to determine what we need in terms of products and tactics,” he continued. “We have a bond issue in June asking the community for assistance in providing new safety and security tools.”
Jay Haugen, who has been superintendent of the Farmington (Minn.) Independent School District for 18 years, told STN the district has a two-pronged approach to strengthening existing security measures: raising awareness among staff members and students and working with law enforcement on re-tooling emergency plans and drills.
“We’ve had community meetings about security, and we’ve met with our local authorities. They’re going to do a review of all our schools and give us any recommendations on what else we can do,” said Haugen. “Beyond that, we’re teaching heightened vigilance. Everyone knows it’s their job to be vigilant at our schools.”
Superintendent Mary Ann Hardebeck of Eau Claire (Wis.) Area School District agreed that vigilance is key to incident prevention, as is strong communication. “We’re a smaller community, and we all know each other. So we’ve really tried to communicate that if you see something is amiss or doesn’t seem quite right, either report it to a police officer or report it to us so we can look into the matter,” Hardebeck said.
She stressed that school security is always a top priority whether or not a violent incident has made the nightly news.
“We work very closely with transportation and local police to try to put everything we know is a best practice into place. We’re certainly looking to see if we can upgrade what we already have,” she said.
In North Dakota, school security has become a hot-button issue, according to Dean Koppelman, superintendent of Valley City #2 School District. He pointed to a bill in the legislature, SB 2267, that, if passed, would provide funding for schools to update security in school buildings with cameras and security devices at entrances. The latest version would set aside $4 million for awarding safety grants to eligible school districts, which would each receive at least $10,000.
“Authorized expenditures for safety include the purchase, installation, and maintenance of alarms, cameras, electronic door locks, emergency response call buttons, intercom systems, key or pass cards, metal detectors, and other similar equipment designed to minimize the potential for a life-threatening crisis and to maximize the safety … [but] do not include personnel costs or contracts for the provision of security services,” states the bill.
“We have a pretty good feeling we will see some funding from the state for that specific purpose,” Koppelman told STN. “It’s kind of sad: School buildings were originally designed to be open to the community, with a lot of windows and open air, providing a welcoming environment. And now we’re talking about turning them into prisons and jails.”
Yet, even the most secure gates and alarm systems may not be enough to keep school children and staff 100-percent safe, cautioned Andrews, who oversees the safety training programs in Massachusetts that educate school chiefs and prepare them for the unthinkable.
“We need to do more work with teachers, and obviously with the buses and the bus drivers,” he added. “I don’t know how you can provide total absolute protection, and that bothers me a lot because I know that we should — but we can’t. Violence is going to continue.”