School Safety: Ridgefield School District hires armed guards

Pact with private security firm runs through this school year

By Tyler Graf, Columbian county government reporter

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With mass shootings fresh in the public consciousness following December's tandem attacks at The Clackamas Town Center near Portland and Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., a Clark County school district is taking measures to make sure something similar doesn't happen there.

The Ridgefield School District has hired a company to provide security, becoming the first one in Clark County to employ a private firm's armed guards. A contract with Phoenix Protective Corp., a Spokane-based security consulting company, calls for at least two of its employees to patrol the district's three campuses for the remainder of the school year.

"Up until this point, we were comfortable with our procedures," said Eric Jacobson, a spokesman for the district. "But when an incident happens that brings other issues into light, there's a review."

That review, born out of community conversations started in December, led the school district to sign a $39,000 contract with the security consultant this month.

Police concerns

As the armed guards start their patrols this week, the Ridgefield Police Department says it's been left in the dark about what role the consultant will play in securing the school district's facilities in the event of an emergency.

Carrie Greene, Ridgefield's chief of police, learned of the district's hiring of private security personnel this week. School district officials had contacted her department about the possibility of hiring armed guards, but Greene said no formal discussions had taken place.

Greene said she had concerns about what the guards would do at the school district.

"I don't know what capability the security guards have," she said. "It would be nice to sit down and see what they're trained to do."

J.C. Shaw, vice president of Phoenix Protective Corp., acknowledged his com

pany hadn't conducted any one-on-one meetings with Greene.

He said the company placed "huge" stock in working closely with law enforcement officials.

"In Ridgefield's case," he said, "it happened so fast we couldn't do that."

Shaw said his company's officers are more than qualified to provide professional security. He said his officers spend about 300 hours training before they're certified as school security officers. Forty hours are dedicated to firearms training.

The 11-year-old company provides security to six school districts and 17 schools in Washington.

Local school districts that provide on-site security -- such as Vancouver, Washougal and Evergreen -- typically hire sworn police officers. Ridgefield last had a school security officer from 2008 until the end of the 2010 school year, and he was a police officer, Jacobson said. When a grant used to pay for the position expired, so did the position.

The armed guards will have authority sworn officers typically don't have.

For one, security officers will be able to search lockers and backpacks if they believe drugs, alcohol or other forms of contraband could be found there. Police officers need to cite probable cause before they conduct searches of students on school grounds, Jacobson said.

He said feedback from the community has been positive.

Parents were notified of the new security officers in a Jan. 10 letter. In the letter, the district outlines a number of new safety policies.

One of the new measures encourages students to ride school buses, so their parents don't have to drive them. The move is intended to cut down on the number of adults on or near campus, making spotting possible threats easier.

The district also ordered more than 100 door locks over the winter holiday. The locks will be installed on classroom doors, enabling teachers to lock them from the inside.

The district also plans to revise its security practices, a measure other districts have taken in recent weeks. That work will include identifying locations for placing security cameras and researching radio communications.

Tyler Graf:360-735-4517; http://www.twitter.com/col_smallcities, tyler.graf@columbian.com.