String of recent incidents have schools rethinking security

More watchful eyes, policy tweaks part of revised approach to safety

By Paul Suarez, Columbian freelance



Part 1 of two-part series:

Clark County's schools strive for safety

New state law provides $10 million to boost school security technology

A new state law, Senate Bill 5197, provides $10 million for upgraded technology to expedite the response and arrival time of law enforcement to schools in emergencies. The program is being overseen by the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction.

"We're finalizing a grant program around this," said Scott Black, a program development manager at OSPI. "We're assuming it's a one-time appropriation."

School districts will be able to apply for grants ranging from $2,500 to $10,000 to upgrade school security systems for "technology that gets a school district to faster response times," Black said. "What we're focusing on are the outcomes: better information to law enforcement, faster."

The grant parameters will be spelled out on the OSPI website by mid-December. Districts will have until mid-March to complete a grant application. The biennial grant would be wrapped up by June 2015, Black said.

On the Web:Read Senate Bill 5197 at: Washington Votes

— Susan Parrish

RIDGEFIELD — The final bell echoes over the campus of Ridgefield High School at 2:45 p.m. on an overcast day in early November. Students filter out of the building, passing freshly planted trees, dirt and gravel as crews work on an expansion to the building on the back of the campus. Across the street, a man wearing khaki pants and a ribbed black sweater stands, watching.

The man, Howard Anderson, is a familiar face at the high school. He greets students as they shuffle toward cars and buses. It’s not the only face time he gets with students. The private security officer also makes it a point to be there as students arrive in the morning and to chat with people he passes while patrolling the hallways throughout the day. As a result, many students know him by his first name and, more important, he knows the students well enough to know when something is off.

His presence is just one of the many new tactics local schools are using to step up security efforts, partially in response to the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School on Dec. 14, 2012.

Those changes went beyond retrofitting schools with costly new security features and planning more secure buildings when new schools are built. For many districts, making changes to personnel, policies and technology was a way to immediately respond.

“When you have a tragedy, especially to the extent of Sandy Hook, the public becomes much more aware of school safety,” said Mick Hoffman, executive director of operations for Vancouver Public Schools. Hoffman, who is in charge of security for the district, said while Vancouver officials are always looking at school safety, the event prompted the district to take a close look at its security systems.

Bryan McGeachy, director of operations at Camas School District, had a similar response. As he watched the events unfold on TV, he started to question if he was ready if something like that were to happen in Camas.

“The only way I could really deal with that as I continued through the weekend watching (news coverage) was to come back down to school,” he said. “I went over every single security plan that we had just to make sure things were updated, our information was current and correct, and how would we respond.”

More eyes

In the wake of the shooting, a few local districts moved forward on new security programs that were in the planning stages. In the Ridgefield and Vancouver school districts, that meant getting security personnel into more schools to help monitor and secure campuses.

Security and safety procedures are always evolving, Hoffman said. In Vancouver, school officials were considering adding more in-house security personnel to its district resource officers, or DRO, program. DROs are trained security personnel assigned to schools in the district. They’re tasked to be proactive rather than reactive and are sometimes equipped with pepper spray and electronic Taser weapons. The program has been in place for about five years, Hoffman said.

Before Sandy Hook the district was looking into adding DROs to elementary schools, the Vancouver School of Arts and Academics and two middle schools that didn’t already have them. The incident at Sandy Hook put that idea on the fast track, Hoffman said.

The district was able to hire seven more DROs within three weeks. Four of them now bounce between elementary school campuses, with the other three assigned to individual schools — although all DROs can also respond to other schools when needed, Hoffman said.

Evergreen Public Schools has a more traditional in-house security team of people who are primarily trained to observe and report incidents but are trained to use force when needed, said Scott Deutsch, risk manager at Evergreen Public Schools. Evergreen’s personnel and Vancouver’s DROs also work closely with school resource officers from the Vancouver Police Department and Clark County Sheriff’s Office.

Ridgefield schools were also in the process of discussing how to get security personnel into schools before Sandy Hook, according to Superintendent Art Edgerly.

The district previously worked with the Ridgefield Police Department to have an officer on campus but had to cancel the program after a city grant ran out, Edgerly said. To save money, the district opted to hire a private security firm, Spokane-based Phoenix Protective Corp., to provide security officers on campus. Initially, it had three armed officers, one at each of the district’s three school campuses. This year, the district scaled back to have one officer — Anderson — patrol the high school campus, Edgerly said.

Ridgefield High School Principal Tony VanderMaas said Anderson’s presence has saved staff time. He uses his expertise to help see any potential weak spots in the school’s security.

“It’s another set of eyes, it’s another person out there,” VanderMaas said. “I think that we’re much better at being attentive to where our students are at, getting them to class on time and those kinds of things.”

Edgerly, whose office overlooks the high school parking lot, says he’s seen a definite improvement in student behavior after Anderson’s arrival. There is less loitering in the parking lot during the day and safer driving before and after school, he said.

“That in itself is worth every penny,” he said, adding that he’s seen fewer referrals for suspensions and expulsions, which he suspects is a result of Anderson.

Change of policy

In the past few years, local schools have started to move away from the one-size-fits-all model to threat response. Many local schools practice using modified lockdowns — locking all exterior doors to a school in response to a threat while educational activities inside the school continue without interruption.

Hoffman said Vancouver started using that type of lockdown a few years ago. The idea is to secure the building if there is a potential threat, such as police searching for a wanted subject nearby. Hoffman said as more information becomes available, the lockdown restrictions will ease. For example, in the case where police are looking for a wanted person, once the school gets a suspect description from police, officials may start letting people who don’t match that description into the building.

Hoffman said the introduction of modified lockdowns is partially the result of violent school events such as Sandy Hook, which in turn have resulted in improved data on best practices, statistics and research from federal agencies.

Run. Hide. Fight.

Sandy Hook also has some local districts looking at a policy known as “Run. Hide. Fight.”

The idea behind the policy is that in the case of a violent incident such as a shooting, students and staff should run away from the dangerous situation if possible. If running isn’t an option, then hiding is the next best option, with the caveat that fighting an attacker may be the last line of defense. A video demonstrating the policy in an office scenario on the Ready Houston YouTube channel started making rounds after a movie theater shooting in Aurora, Colo. last year.

“So basically what you teach with ‘Run. Hide. Fight’ is if there’s shooting over here, you run away from the sounds of the shooting,” said Sgt. Shane Gardner, who supervises sheriff’s deputies who work in local schools.

McGeachy, who works at Camas schools, said his district is still looking at training staff about “Run. Hide. Fight.” But he’s not sure how that policy will work with elementary school students. They can’t cover as much ground as a high school student, he said.

The goal of the change is to buy time for police to arrive.

“One thing we’ve learned in law enforcement is seconds matter,” Gardner said. Police also talk about the merits of having the first officer to arrive on the scene of a mass casualty event immediately enter a building instead of waiting for backup to help sweep the school. In many cases, shooters will surrender or shoot themselves when armed officials arrive, he said. Going into a building immediately may help end the danger that much faster.

Technology upgrades

Schools are also upgrading security technology to remove barriers and save time.

Vancouver and Evergreen schools are exploring the idea of giving Clark Regional Services Agency access to security cameras so dispatchers can direct law enforcement around the building if need be. Deutsch said Evergreen is testing digital camera access at its new HeLa High School. If the program is a success, the district would need to upgrade cameras at some of its other schools.

The two big districts are also looking into giving police access to key fobs that can open doors to schools.

Scott McDaniel, director of technology at Battle Ground Pubic Schools, said all the schools in his district have digital surveillance that can be accessed from any computer. The district allows certain staff, administrators and law enforcement personnel access to cameras, he said.

Safe Schools Task Force

Battle Ground’s McDaniel said he’s confident about security in his district and that didn’t change because of Newtown. He, and others who deal with school safety around Clark County, come together as the Safe Schools Task Force, a group of security and operations directors from all county school districts, as well as public safety, health, mental health personnel and people from other agencies, including nonprofit groups. The panel meets a few times each year to discuss safety. Group members constantly pick each other’s brains to see what can be improved.

“People who go into education like kids. … As a kid person, the worst thing that could ever happen in my career is some kid get injured and there’s something I could have done about it,” Hoffman said. “We can never guarantee everybody’s safety, but we can definitely guarantee our public that we are doing everything we can to make them safe.”

Run. Hide. Fight.

Video from Ready Huston (