Gun free zone: collaboration, communication key to keeping schools safe

Part one in a two part series on the approach to school safety in the Kent and Tahoma school districts.

Editor’s Note: this is the first of a two part series examining school safety in the Kent and Tahoma School Districts.

The scene is chillingly real: in a hallway at Tahoma Junior High, students’ screams and pleas for help reverberate off the walls and their classmates lie on the floor with fake blood stains on their clothes and fake blood on their faces, one student has a black tag affixed to their wrist — the color that means in this simulated scenario they’ve died — the victim of a school shooter.

That was the scene I observed Oct. 3 when the students and staff at TJH as well as district administrators, the King County Sheriff’s Office, Covington and Maple Valley police departments and Medic One participated in an orchestrated scenario where a pretend active shooter entered the school. The large scale drill that takes place annually at the junior high is one of a kind and provides learning opportunities for both the school and first responders.

The idea was to find out what collectively worked and what didn’t, for both those inside and outside the school. It also gave all involved the chance to go through the motions and practice the head knowledge they already had.

Exercises like these are both proactive and reactive — a prepare for the worst, hope for the best mentality — developed from an increased awareness in school safety in light of tragedies at Columbine High School in April 1999 and, more recently, at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut.


The shootings at Columbine High School, carried out by two students, changed the face of school safety.

“Back at that time, that was one of the initial pushes and recognition of, things can happen on campuses,” Tim Kovich, the safety manager for the Kent School District, said. “With that, original pushes of putting those officers in schools and being there all the time. That built a very strong foundation for some of the things that are going on (now).”

Kovitch explained that a large part of that initial push was putting officers in every one of the district’s high schools and middle schools. The district also has two school resource officers, law enforcement officers from the Kent Police Department who are specifically designated to work with the district.

Over the years the district also began to add video surveillance of common areas at schools to help monitor the campuses. Currently the district has 294 cameras.

Around the 2009-2010 school year, the district looked at its security and decided to overhaul the department, and begin to emphasize relationships with students and staff, Kovitch went on to explain.

“That drive behind that (the overhaul) was a look aback at that heavy, policing style of security model, and things that were being accomplished and that time, and to look at how our officers get more involved.” Kovitch said. “We wanted to try to prevent things from actually coming to that point (security needing to react to a situation). We were trying to look at…how can we look and when we see it coming how can we direct those services or how can we direct that before ever having to be in that bad discussion with that student?”

The district even changed the titles of security guards at the schools to safety officers.

Kovitch said that also at that time the department became a part of the technology department to help connect the district’s resources.

“Which is a great thing that has happened…to see where those things can come together again and to have that response — real-time viewing and provide a better service for everyone in the Kent School District,” Kovitch said.

In the Tahoma School District the attitude toward school safety and security is much the same as it is in Kent in terms of taking a relational approach, according to TJH School Safety Officer and district Safety and Security Coordinator Sean Kelly.

Tahoma has a school safety officer at the two middle schools, junior high, and high school as well as a part-time school resource officer from the King County Sheriff’s Office.

“The school is no different then a town,” Kelly said. “You’re going to have some students who make poor decisions, just like out in the real world, and you have to investigate those, get the truth, and then instill some discipline there so they can learn from it.”

Kelly said that knowing the students is key to helping keep students and staff safe. He estimated that 70 percent of what he hears about he hears from students, 20 percent comes from staff and 10 percent comes from parents or community members.

“The proactive side is to get out there and to get to know the kids,” Kelly said. “The students and the parents call me Sean. It’s so we have a little bit more rapport with the students. When the students have a little bit more rapport with you they’re more apt to tell you what’s going on in the building.”

The school resource officer program for Tahoma began after Columbine on a federal grant and the funding was taken over by King County, the district, and the city of Maple Valley. Kelly said that when funds got tight the county and the city both cut the funding from their budgets and the district was able to keep the program going until 2010.

“Every time we had a problem with something we had to wait hours to get a sheriff’s deputy here (at the school) because we’d call 911 and they prioritize such things,” Kelly said. “If there’s an accident somewhere, or anything going on, and we’ve got a kid in here with drugs, that’s kind of a low priority. To us that’s a high priority, it’s totally opposite, which I understand, totally — you know the kid’s not doing anything.”

Kelly said that he views the SRO program as a key piece of the school safety puzzle because it gives the district a designated go-to person in the Sheriff’s Office and helps with the relational component. The district re-instituted the SRO program on a part-time basis this year.


Columbine forced law enforcement to rethink how they respond to incidents like active shooters at schools according to Kent Police Officer and School Resource Officer Scott Rankin.

Rankin explained that since Columbine police tactics and priorities have changed.

“The tactics were surround it (the school or other location where an incident was happening), wait for the SWAT team to come in,” Rankin said. “(Police) realized that deploying an entity like that (SWAT) takes way too long.”

Rankin said that now the mentality is to get there and get in as quickly as possible to stop the incident.

“We have recognized that time equals lives,” Rankin said. “Therefore we’re going to send smaller groups in as many ways as we can.”

Rankin said that officers know the dangers associated with such actions but that officers know danger is part of the job and that if it means stopping someone from harming students, that is what matters.

“Everyone is sensitive to the idea that if we as a society can’t protect our children, we fail,” Rankin said.

Then there was Sandy Hook. It was a cloudy Friday morning in December, days before Kent and Tahoma schools were to let out for the winter break, when the news began to trickle in. It was a trickle that became a flood as the media flocked to the small-town suburb of New York City where a lone gunman shot his way into Sandy Hook Elementary and killed 20 students and six adults.

Next week’s piece will look at the initial reaction within Kent and Tahoma schools and how the approach to school safety has changed as a result of Sandy Hook.