Schools stress safety first

Restricting access to buildings vital to keeping students secure, say district administrators, law enforcement officials in Clark County

By Ray Legendre, Columbian staff writer

Published:

 

Thirteen years ago, two high school students in Littleton, Colo., killed 12 classmates and a teacher in one of the deadliest attacks on an American school campus.

Long before the Columbine massacre on April 20, 1999, Clark County school administrators and law-enforcement officials were working together to address campus safety issues.

Their efforts, in particular those designed to eliminate external threats, remain works in progress.

Visit any K-12 school campus in Clark County during the school day, and the school’s expectations for you will be the same.

You will enter the office, sign your name on a sign-in sheet, note your purpose for being there and arrival time and put on a visitor’s badge.

The emphasis on restricting access is not unique to Clark County schools. It is a practice adopted nationwide to determine who steps on campus — and why — in order to create a safer environment for students and teachers.

In many Clark County schools, visitors have no choice but to pass through the office first, because of how architects designed the building. This not only identifies who is on campus, but helps responders know how many people are on campus in the event of an emergency, school officials said.

However, there are other campuses where visitors can access the school directly. In these schools, the onus often falls on a school resource officer, if one is present, or school employees to identify people who should not be there. Either the visitor obtains the proper credential or they leave, sometimes with a police escort.

School access points are “not one size fits all,” said Loy Dale, executive director of school and agency operations at ESD 112. Districts make individual decisions on access to schools, he noted.

That schools would want to restrict access makes sense, said Kenneth Trump, president of National School Safety and Security Services, a Cleveland, Ohio-based national consulting firm for safety-related issues.

“Most people don’t leave their doors wide open day and night,” Trump said. “Most businesses don’t leave their doors wide open day and night. Why should we do the same with our schools?”

Safe schools task force

A rise in gang activity in Clark County and reports of school violence elsewhere sparked the formation of the Clark County Safe Schools Task Force around 15 years ago, according to Clark County Sheriff Garry Lucas, one of the people instrumental in the task force’s start.

“The simple fact of the matter is the times have changed, the challenges have changed and the expectations of parents on the safety of their children have changed,” Lucas said.

Among the topics the task force discusses are school access issues, safety drills and the ability for police to move freely around school buildings, said Ron Carlson, principal of Jemtegaard Middle School in Washougal and the chair of the Safe Schools Task Force for the past six years.

The Clark County Safe Schools Task Force is an informal group, and as such does not draft protocols. School districts take the information discussed and apply it according to their needs and budgets.

Vancouver Public Schools, for instance, remodeled its school offices throughout the 1990s, spokeswoman Kris Sork said. Even the older schools in the district got face-lifts requiring visitors to enter through the front office. The improvements were part of the district’s increased focus on safety.

Such improvements would not have been made 25 to 30 years ago, Carlson noted.

“I remember when I went to school, people were walking in all the time,” Carlson said. “But society’s changed.”

Hospitality vs. safety

Union High Principal Brian Grimsted welcomes prospective students and their parents on campus tours. The same is true for former students returning for alumni festivities.

However, if they show up to the front office of any of the school’s five buildings without an appointment, they will get asked to schedule one and come back later.

Grimsted and other administrators are forced to find a balance between providing hospitality to the community they serve and ensuring the students and teachers who attend their school each day are safe.

This tightrope is not always easy. Neither is restricting access, others observed.

Union High’s open, community college-style design relies on gates connected to each of its buildings to prevent outsiders from wandering onto the five-year-old campus.

Each building has a separate office where visitors must pick up their badge. On the rare occasions when someone walks in through an open gate, a school resource officer talks to them and advises them about the school’s closed campus policy between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m.

School resource officer Rodrigo Osorio noted in his three years at Union High, he has never arrested anyone for returning to the campus after being warned not to do so.

On an older campus like Lacamas Heights Elementary in the Camas School District, visitors have to walk through the building before visiting the office.

“If we lived in a perfect world and could redesign every school without money (involved), definitely we would have all visitors come into the office first,” Camas School District spokeswoman Doreen McKercher said.

Ridgefield and Hockinson high schools are examples of buildings with multiple entrance and exit points.

At Hockinson High, for instance, all doors except the main entrance are locked electronically during the school day, Superintendent Sandra Yager said. The school also has a surveillance camera trained on the front entrance, as well as other cameras throughout the school.

Internal, external threats

When asked to discuss the dangers posed by visitors, school administrators interviewed for this story elected not to. Doing so would provide those with malicious intent with ideas, they explained.

Sometimes, the greatest danger comes from within, history shows with Columbine and other examples.

Washington’s most recent school shooting involved a 9-year-old Bremerton boy accidentally shooting a third-grade classmate when a handgun went off in his backpack. The Feb. 22 incident left a young girl with wounds to her abdomen and arm, but she survived.

School administrators’ opinions vary on whether internal or external threats represent the greatest danger.

Grimsted’s experience has shown him that tense on-campus situations with outsiders often have a volatility that is more unpredictable than similar situations where only students are involved.

“I’m worried way more about someone coming in,” the Union High principal said.

A mixture of security measures addressing internal and external concerns are recommended, Trump, the security expert, said. Included among them is on-campus security when the situation warrants, security cameras and a well-trained staff.

“You shouldn’t skew security measures to be lopsided in one area,” Trump said. “You can’t prepare just for threats from outside or threats from within. You prepare for both. Part of that is access control.”

No fatal incidents

The safest building design for children is not a practical one, school officials agree.

That design?

A prison.

“That’s not what the public wants,” Dale said, quickly swatting down the far-fetched notion. “They want open, welcoming, academically focused structures.”

Clark County schools and others across the country are remarkably safe, he said. Clark County schools, for instance, have had their share of fights and even a handful of incidents where guns or other weapons were brought to school in the past 15 years, but never a violent incident that claimed a life.

Asked what this meant, Carlson responded, “It represents we have plans we can initiate if we feel we have an unsafe situation.”

A recent study released by the Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Statistics found there were only 18 violent deaths of students ages 5-18 during the 2009-10 school year.

That translated to one violent death (either homicide or suicide) per 2.7 million enrolled students, the study revealed.

“As horrible as Columbine and other events have been,” Dale said, “when you look at the million-plus students who attend Washington schools 180 days per year, the number of incidents of violence is so low that kids are probably safer at school than any other environment they can be in.”

That security starts in the front office, school administrators agree.

Ray Legendre: 360-735-4517; www.facebook.com/raylegend;www.twitter.com/#!/col_smallcities;ray.legendre@columbian.com

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