Clark County's schools strive for safety

Newer buildings have latest features, while some older ones are being retrofitted

By Susan Parrish, Columbian education reporter



Features that make schools safer

A quick look at a few safety features being built into local schools.

Recent threats in Clark County schools

Dec. 12, 2012: Evergreen High School, Evergreen Public Schools. A day after a gunman killed two people at Clackamas Town Center near Portland, 15-year-old Wyatt Michael Ball brought his father’s single-shot Rossi .410 gauge, .22 caliber rifle-shotgun to Evergreen High School, intending to sell it to another student. A teacher found the disassembled gun in a nylon case in a classroom. The boy was sentenced to 30 days of detention, one year of probation and 40 days of community service.

Sept. 11, 2013: Chief Umtuch Middle School, Battle Ground Public Schools. Jeff Ardine Erwin, 13, allegedly posted bomb threats to the school’s online message board, threatening to harm both the school and specifically the principal. He was arraigned on two felony charges: harassment death threats and making threats to bomb. A hearing to determine if the boy is competent to aid in his own defense is scheduled for Dec. 9.

Oct. 23, 2013: Frontier Middle School, Evergreen Public Schools. After his mother called the school to say some kitchen knives were missing, Quincy Tuttle, 11, was searched and found with a .22-caliber handgun and two loaded .22-caliber magazines in his pants pockets, court documents state. After a further search, police said they found 463 rounds of ammunition, six large kitchen knives, a steak knife and a pair of two-way radios in his backpack. If he is deemed competent, he faces charges of attempted murder and other weapons-related crimes. He remains in custody. A hearing to determine if he is competent to aid in his own defense is scheduled for Dec. 11.

Notable U.S. school shootings since 1998

May 21, 1998: Thurston High School, Springfield, Ore. After first killing his parents, Kip Kinkel, 15, killed 2 students and wounded 22 others. He was sentenced to 111 years in prison.

April 20, 1999: Columbine High School, Littleton, Colo. Seniors Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold shot and killed 12 students, 1 teacher and wounded 24 students before committing suicide.

April 16, 2007: Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, Va. Virginia Tech senior Seung-Hui Cho, 23, shot and killed 32 people and wounded 17 others before committing suicide.

Dec. 14, 2012: Sandy Hook Elementary, Newtown, Conn., Adam Lanza, 20, first killed his mother, then drove to the school and fatally shot 20 children and six adult staff members before committing suicide. He had no affiliation to the school.

On the Web

View a list of incidents of school violence in the U.S.

View an updated, interactive map of school security threats in the U.S.

CAMAS — Woodburn Elementary School still smells new. Bathed in natural light from the two-story library, the hallway feels welcoming and gives students a glimpse of the books and other learning tools awaiting them inside.

The Camas school is the newest elementary school in Clark County, and also the best example of optimum school security.

The security is subtle. After school begins, interior double doors that allow students to pour into the school in the morning are locked. For the rest of the day, all visitors are routed through the school office.

Except for the front door, all exterior doors are locked and can be opened only by staff with electronic fobs. Digital security cameras keep a watchful eye on the school's interior and exterior. School administrators have an unobstructed view of the parking lot, front doors and playground.

If a threat occurs, a staff member can push a panic button to lock exterior doors and to alert security staff and law enforcement. Unlike most other schools in Clark County, teachers can lock their classroom doors from the inside without stepping into the hall.

Woodburn Elementary stands in sharp contrast to older Clark County schools — some more than 50 years old — that are playing catch up by retrofitting security features as money allows.

Just purchasing locks that can secure a door from inside the classroom cost more than $200 apiece. It would cost $6,000 to outfit 30 classroom doors with interior locks.

Yet officials say there is a new sense of urgency to make schools safer. Once a sanctuary where the safety of students and staff was a given, schools have been rocked by security threats and violence. Almost a year after the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn., school staffs have been amping up security.

"Some schools are just not designed well," said Clark County Sheriff's Office Sgt. Shane Gardner. "Whoever the architects were didn't fathom that people would do such evil things (as school shootings)."

Welcoming and safe

Secure schools begin with safe design.

"What happened at Sandy Hook is horrific, but the challenge as architects is that the major focus of a school is learning," said Casey Wyckoff, president of LSW Architects, which has designed several Clark County schools.

"At one end of the spectrum, you could have a place that stifles learning. A school that's so secure that it's essentially a prison," Wyckoff said. "At the other end, an open campus with many people coming and going. How do you make a school feel both welcoming and safe? That's the challenge."

Architects consider a concept called crime prevention through environmental design, Wyckoff said. Considerations include placing large, decorative bollards to prevent vehicles from crashing through doors and designing campuses with an unobstructed line of sight that allows law enforcement driving by on patrol to ensure no one has broken into the school.

Several Clark County schools built in the 1970s or earlier pose security challenges, Wyckoff said. Some older schools built with an open concept design feature a maze of hallways, internal courtyards and an exterior door in every classroom.

Some classrooms don't have full walls or doors to lock out an intruder. Some older schools were designed in pods, which equals multiple buildings and exterior doors. Almost all schools in the county use portable classrooms not connected to the main school building. Other school campuses weren't designed with that line of sight that architect Wyckoff suggested.

Even with modern security considerations, it's still possible to make a school look like a school.

Union High School, consisting of five buildings plus a modular, opened in 2007 on the eastern edge of the Evergreen district.

"Union was designed post-Columbine," said Scott Deutsch, the district's risk manager. "A limited number of doors provide access. The landscaping provides good sight lines to see what's happening on the campus," he said.

The sprawling courtyard between the buildings is protected by a tall security fence and watched by cameras. Within the buildings, some sections can be secured by locking hallway doors, thus containing a threat to a portion of a building and making the rest of the building safe.

Of course, like any public place, no school can provide perfect safety.

"To truly make a school a safe environment, we'd have to have a fence up around the thing with concertina wire," said Gardner of the Sheriff's Office.

"We'd spend so much time on the security aspect, it would be like one of our rubber rooms down at the sheriff's office," Gardner said.

Retrofitting older schools

Skyview High School in the Vancouver school district stands in sharp contrast to Woodburn Elementary. Built in 1997, two years before Columbine, the Vancouver district's newest high school features an open concept design that's challenging to secure.

Just beyond the front doors, wings radiate from the two-story commons, making it easy to move about the school.

So as school threats have become more commonplace, Skyview has been modified to make it more secure. All exterior doors except for the front door are locked. The district received permission from the fire marshal to enable the steel gates that close off each wing to shut quickly in an emergency. Another retrofitted feature is the security kiosk staffed with a uniformed district resource officer just inside the front door.

Prune Hill Elementary in Camas was modified so that office staff can see who's coming in the school's front door, said Bryan McGeachy, the district's director of operations.

Several schools in the Vancouver district are piloting a new security feature. After school starts, the front doors are locked. Visitors, including parents dropping off a forgotten lunch or homework assignment, must push an intercom near the front door to speak to school staff, who can see the visitor on camera. The door is buzzed open only after the visitor is cleared by the school office.

"If we're really going to make these safety principles work, it's necessary to monitor the front door," said Karrie Yank, principal at Roosevelt Elementary, one of the schools piloting the security intercom system. "We still want people to feel welcomed, but we want them to understand the safety piece."

Watchful eyes

Schools throughout Clark County are monitored by security cameras from both inside and outside of buildings. About 450 cameras watch over the schools at Vancouver Public Schools, said Mick Hoffman, the district's executive director of operations.

"The trend is for Web-based digital cameras that can give access to law enforcement," Hoffman said. "We've been talking about this stuff for four or five years, and Newtown made us put it in place."

Battle Ground Public Schools upgraded its security system thanks to a $1.56 million Qualified School Construction Bond in 2009, said Scott McDaniel, the district's director of technology. Now all security cameras can be accessed remotely by key personnel and law enforcement.

From his Camas school district office, McGeachy can view all security cameras monitoring the district's buildings. If the police need to see security footage, they call him.

A total of 850 phones in all Camas schools have reverse 911 technology. If someone calls 911 from a Camas school, the 911 operator can see from which school and room the call originates.

"The IT department loaded all the information into a database. Each phone was tested for workability and accuracy this past summer," said McGeachy.

Assessing school security

Statewide, concerns about making schools safer are addressed by a team of specialists with the construction services group at Educational Services District 112. Jay Garthwaite, a program manager, travels around the state to provide detailed safety and security assessments of schools.

"We begin with the CPTED (crime prevention through environmental design) universe of concerns, then we use the Homeland Security and Secret Service guidelines for making schools more secure," Garthwaite said. "Improving security in a school is a continuum from doing absolutely nothing and hoping for the best up to you can spend hundreds of thousands of dollars in adding security improvements."

For example, a security panel in the office can indicate when exterior doors are open. To implement a wireless door supervision system for a typical middle school with 30 doors would cost $400 to $500 per door, for a total of $12,000 to $15,000, Garthwaite said.

But if the school wants to go a step further to allow an administrator to lock the doors remotely, "that's a cost of up to $2,500 per door because it's much more complex. You need cabling and a power supply for every door," he said. For the same 30 doors, Garthwaite said, the price tag could reach $75,000. That's a lot of money when schools need to spend money on books, computers and classroom instruction.

Security at Clark County schools has been amped up with electronic card lock doors, cameras, phones, panic buttons and much more.

During a security walk-through recently at Woodburn Elementary in Camas, the citadel of school security, McGeachy found a back door propped open with a chair.

"Even with all the systems in place, it's only as good as the people who use them," McGeachy said, walking outside to find a staff member who had propped open the door to allow a truck to deliver supplies to the school. "People need to be trained."