By Jennifer Wohlleb
In the more than four months that have passed since the Newtown, Conn., school shootings, educators across the country have been reviewing safety procedures and looking for areas in need of improvement, but some changes have been easier to make than others.
“We have checked into the buzzer/clicker systems for our doors,” said Trimble County Schools Superintendent Marcia Haney Dunaway. “I have one estimate and my maintenance man is getting a second one, and as soon as we get those, we’re going to be putting those in so you can push a button and the door opens, rather than someone having to get up and open the door.”
PHOTO: Pulaski County Deputy Sheriff Scott West eats lunch with students in Pulaski County. Inviting law enforcement into schools for free meals is an economical and popular way to increase building security.
The biggest problem with that, however, will be the wait. “When I got our first estimate, (the installer) said everyone is getting them,” she said. “There’s a waiting list to get them installed.”
Physical changes are one avenue school leaders are taking. Reviewing and updating safety and emergency response plans is the other. Those latter actions are now mandatory with two new bills recently passed by the Kentucky General Assembly.
Senate Bill 8 and House Bill 354 address emergency management plans, required safety drills and protection through environmental design of school buildings. The bills require schools to adopt an emergency management plan and ensure that all staff, faculty and first responders are familiar with it. The plans must encompass procedures for fire, severe weather, earthquake and building lockdown. The new laws also call for primary and secondary evacuation routes for all rooms in a school.
Schools also will now be required to review their emergency plans at the end of each school year and to alert first responders to any revisions that are made. Schools will have to conduct not only a fire drill within the first 30 days of school, but severe weather, earthquake and lockdown drills.
“You can never, ever review things enough when it comes to emergency management planning,” said Jon Akers, director of the Kentucky Center for School Safety.
The laws also move to tighten school access, mandating that all doors except the front doors be locked during the school day. Classrooms equipped with doors that lock on the outside and not on the inside must remain locked during the instructional day. Also, the laws require guests to sign in at the front office, provide valid identification, and wear a visitor’s badge throughout their visit.
But educators did not need the weight of new laws to make them take action. Within days of the Dec. 14 Sandy Hook Elementary shootings, districts across the state were meeting with school board members, administrators and law enforcement.
“We met with leadership in the district and within the schools … we met with local law enforcement and we continue to meet with them,” said Powell County Schools Superintendent Michael Tate. “We’ve started looking at each school individually to see what were any issues or concerns there and we’re going to revisit those at future meetings with our local law enforcement and our leadership within the district.”
Allen County school leaders discussed safety at a board meeting on the Monday following the shooting and then with the district’s local partners in early January to go over policies, procedures and responses.
“We did bring law enforcement officials in at one board meeting and went over some things, what are our policies for people coming in and out of our schools and those types of things,” said board Chairman Jeff Eaton.
“After that meeting, over the next two weeks, I, along with several people from the central office, conducted assessments with principals at each of the four schools,” said Superintendent Randall Jackson. “We walked around the schools and asked them if they had any concerns, is there anything that’s not working properly, such as a door that’s not closing. We made a list of any concerns as far as maintenance concerns and got those rectified by the end of January.”
Jackson said those walk-throughs did bring a few problem areas to light.
“There are a couple of buildings that are a little bit older that we’re going to modify the entrance area to,” he said. “In one building we’re looking to add a vestibule so people have to go directly into the main office first. We’re in the process of building a new technical center (starting construction this summer), which will now directly connect with our high school, and that will take care of any concerns with regards to our tech center as far as security. There won’t be any kids walking outside to get to that building.”
Powell County created a minor stir among parents when it changed afternoon pick-up procedures at its elementary schools.
“They had pretty much let parents come in (to the classrooms) and pick up kids,” Tate said. “We changed that to where they had to wait out front and let the kids come to them.”
He said there were some parent complaints in the beginning, but once they understood that controlling how people enter and leave their buildings makes students safer, they calmed down.
When Adair County replaces two older school buildings with a new one that will soon be under construction, all of its schools will have the buzzer entry systems. Until then, all doors are locked and the schools without the automated system are opened manually by office staff.
Brenda Mann, Adair County’s district safety coordinator, said the district also has a school resource officer who moves among the schools, all of which are within a 1.5 mile radius.
“Most of his time is spent at the middle and high schools, but he spends time at all of our schools,” she said. “Since we’re on this small campus, it makes it easier for him to be able to monitor the whole system.”
Finding a way
While some Kentucky schools have resource officers, not every district can afford one for each school or even one to share, so educators are getting creative to achieve a law enforcement presence in their buildings.
“Any law enforcement member who wants to come and eat breakfast or lunch at any school with our students, we’re providing that free,” Tate said. “We thought that would be good to get visibility, that they were in and out of our schools. We’ve put that in place … we’ve had quite a few come in. We’re probably going to look at other options with that in the future.”
In addition to free meals, Bracken County also is offering office space.
“We offered state police office space, where they can come into our schools 24 hours a day to do paperwork and have computer access,” said Superintendent Jeff Aulick.
Both school leaders say it’s an inexpensive way to keep an intermittent police presence in their schools.
Aulick said, “We can have an officer without the extra cost, we can have an officer in different buildings at different times of the week, just doing walk-throughs."