Gun Free Zone: Creating a safer school through partnerships, vigilance

The push for reforms in how we as a society approach school safety was sparked by Columbine and raised again in recent years in light of other school tragedies, including those at universities. Sandy Hook was no exception. So what is going on in our schools? What has changed since mid December? What areas of concern persist?

Editor’s note: this is the second piece in a two-part series on school safety.

Dec. 14, 2012 — it is a day that is marked in infamy. The day a sleepy suburb in Connecticut was marred by a tragedy that will be remembered alongside Columbine and Virginia Tech. It was the day 20 children and six adults lost their lives at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

What happened that day sparked a nationwide conversation about school safety and gun rights.

The conversation on school safety typically includes discussions from banning backpacks in classrooms to installing metal detectors and arming teachers. In fact, the very name of this series — Gun Free Zone — refers to what is known as the Gun Free Zone Act of 1990 which was revised in 1995, both of which made it illegal to be in possession of a firearm on school grounds.

The push for reforms in how we as a society approach school safety was sparked by Columbine and raised again in recent years in light of other school tragedies, including those at universities. Sandy Hook was no exception.

So what is going on in our schools? What has changed since mid December? What areas of concern persist?

As of May 2012, the most current numbers available on the school report cards provided by the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction, Tahoma and Kent schools serve a combined 34,544 students and employ 1,891 classroom teachers across 48 schools. That’s a headcount equivalent to a medium sized city.

The initial reaction for both districts in December was to partner with their respective local law enforcement agencies to step up patrols at campuses by officers throughout the day. The idea was simply to create an increased presence and awareness of that presence.

Following that, both districts reviewed their safety practices and tried to identify where there might be holes or where they could improve.

Reallocated funds go to safety related projects

In the wake of Sandy Hook the Kent School Board approved the reallocation of funds from the 2006 bond referendum to be used for a variety of safety projects around the district.

“A couple of things since then have happened,” said Kent Schools Safety Manager Tim Kovich. “We’re increasing our cameras to elementary schools…so we’re going from about 294 cameras, increasing to close to 1,000 cameras within a few years, updating some alarm systems and some different locking features at schools.”

The first step in the new locking systems was to issue new identification badges to staff members, which happened prior to Sandy Hook. The bond reallocation, however, designated funds to continue to implement the new systems, including the first full pilot school site at Crestwood Elementary. The new badges are keys unto themselves and can be used with electronic locks.

“We’ll be able to use (the new locks) as a locking mechanism during an emergency situation similar to a lockdown or other emergencies at a school,” Kovich said. “So no longer will the staff member have to go out into an area that could possibly be dangerous for them. This is now something that can be accomplished either at the school with a single button type idea or our office here (at the district office)…it saves a lot of time and provides that very safe environment for those kids really quick.”

In another project which received funding from the reallocated funds, Crestwood—a school built with an open concept floor plan and no interior classroom doors—is having interior doors built in. Crestwood was one of several schools in the district built with that design and is the last one to receive the interior doors.

“That school is getting walled-in doors. All of the others do have them,” Kovich said.

That project also is what led to Crestwood being the pilot site for the new locking system.

“That is because it is all being done at once,” Kovich said. “My understanding is that that makes it easier to actually do all of the doors when we’re doing it in that way instead of coming in and retrofitting the readers to existing doors.”

Reallocation funds will also be used to update alarm systems throughout the district.

“That (the updated systems) will be able to direct us to specific locations when we get alarms instead of a wing or a building, it’s specific to a door or a window,” Kovich said.

Focus on vigilance and communication

In January the Tahoma School District Safety and Emergency Preparedness Committee met to review the district’s policies and procedures and identify areas that could be improved.

That meeting included King County Sheriff John Urquhart, Maple Valley Police Chief Michelle Bennett, King County Sheriff deputy Sam Shirley, Tahoma School District Superintendent Mike Maryanski, School Board President Tim Adam, building principals and safety committee members. Maple Valley Mayor Bill Allison and Chief Brad Doerflinger of Maple Valley Fire and Life Safety and a representative from Congressman Dave Reichert’s office also attended.

“The thing at that meeting was, what do we really need to do now to get ready,” said Sean Kelly, the school safety officer at Tahoma Junior High and the safety and security coordinator for the entire district. “Our hope and prayer is that that never happens in our school, but Sandy Hook Elementary School was not that much different then Shadow Lake Elementary School.”

According to Tahoma School District spokesman Kevin Patterson, everything from strategies which could be immediately implemented to long term projects were discussed at the meeting.

Kelly said that the biggest take away for him was improving communication among first responders.

In addition, Kelly said, it gave district administration a chance to hear what is going on in the schools and for principals to voice any concerns they had. Patterson said that the district has continued to have safety meetings, three in all since that initial meeting.

School staff took another step at that time to improve safety.

“We also started locking the outside doors,” Kelly said. “We used to have a lot of perimeter doors open.”

This summer Kelly is working on creating a school safety training video to remind staff of what they should be watching for — someone without a badge, and doors that are normally locked jammed open, to name some examples.

The district is also updating emergency charts and redesigning them from a flip book style to a poster which will be displayed in every classroom.

Patterson said another area the district is looking at how safety can be improved and updated is monitoring and restricting who comes and goes from campuses.

“At some of our buildings that is hard to do because of the way they’re built and the number of people coming and going,” Patterson said.

Patterson used the high school as an example of having a high volume of traffic with running start and vocational programs that require students to come and go.

“It (the high school) is not set up to be a fortress, none of our schools are,” Patterson said.

Patterson said that funding bigger projects will be a hurdle for the district. Some projects, like upgrading classroom door locks, Patterson anticipates being included in the bond district officials anticipate will run in November.

“Door locks are a big one,” Patterson said of projects the district would like to do.

He went on to explain that many doors around the district must be locked from the outside, which takes additional time and would require someone to go out into a hallway or other area to lock a door.

Also in January the district began a LiveTip hotline, an anonymous phone number that can be used to report anything from weapons, bomb threats and fights to bullying, physical or sexual abuse, gang activity, vandalism or theft. Callers can choose to talk to a live operator or leave a recorded message. The messages can then be documented and shared with school officials. Patterson said that so far the district hasn’t received any tips through the service.

“I think, too, people need to keep in mind, schools are safe places,” Patterson said. “School safety is on people’s minds every day.”

Partnering with law enforcement

Another aspect of school safety, which both districts have focused on this year, is relationships with outside agencies like police departments.

Kent launched a Cops on Campus program, which increases police presence at the elementary schools, which don’t have a designated school safety officer on campus like the district’s middle schools and high schools do.

“They (police officers) are stopping by our elementary schools during the day, a couple times a week, spending a few minutes to sometimes a couple hours and it’s depending on their work flow,” Kovich said. “Getting out to see the parents, see the kids, be there during the school times. That has now become a part of their day, adopting these schools.”

A presence from police officers is also about building relationships with the community, Kovich said.

“One of the key things with the officers in the schools is that one-on-one contact, being there, that consistent face and recognition with our officers, with the students, being there and being aware of what’s going on in that student’s life, because then we can recognize — we know when the student is having a bad day looking at their face across the cafeteria,” Kovich said.

Both districts have also had a renewed emphasis on school resource officer programs, which have been around for many years but have ebbed and flowed as funding fluctuated.

Kovich said that Kent has had school resource officers, Kent Police Officers that are assigned to schools as part of their patrol, the entire time he has worked at the district. The district currently has two officers that are school resource officers.

The school resource officers in Kent are assigned to Kent-Meridian High School, Kentridge, Mill Creek Middle School, and Meridian Middle School.

“We often times go district-wide, certainly city-wide,” Kent Police Officer and School Resource Officer Scott Rankin said. “We’re a direct link with school safety.”

School resource officers fill a number of duties including responding to any kind of incidents which require law enforcement at schools, building relationships with students and staff, participating in safety assessments, providing feedback, dispelling myths and participating in educational opportunities for students and staff, Rankin said.

In Tahoma the program was discontinued in early 2011 due cuts in funding but the program was reinstated this year, a move which was underway before Sandy Hook. Tahoma has one school resource officer from the King County Sheriff’s Office who works with the district on a part-time basis.

Kelly said one project that is in the works with the city of Maple Valley is to bring school resource officers to the three elementary schools that are within the city limits this fall.

“We already talked about it a couple times and now we need to get it going for this fall,” said Kelly, who is also a Maple Valley City Councilman. “One SRO costs $162,000. That’s five teachers…you’ve got to pick. Our primary goal is education but you have to make sure that students feel safe.”

Revised state law

This year the Washington state legislature passed Engrossed Senate Bill 5620 co-sponsored by Sen. Curtis King of the 14th Legislative District and Sen. Rosemary McAuliffe of the 1st Legislative District, which mandates the type and frequency of emergency drills schools must practice.

The law previously called for six fire drills, one lockdown drill, and one shelter in place drill at every school during the academic year. The amended law now calls for three fire drills, three lockdown drills, one shelter in place drill, and one other drill of the school’s choosing.

Both Kovich and Patterson said that the districts surpass the minimum standards set by the state.

“We’ve been very fortunate with our students, with our area, where we’ve not had a very large situation in general,” Kovich said. “But we constantly drill and we have these plans in place. We don’t have a lot of large events but we’re always ready.”

Every situation that could or does happen at a school is different but Patterson said that the drills and doing the procedures do matter.

“I think if you have the basics, then at least you have the basics to fall back on,” Patterson said.

In a small city everyone matters

“We think that being vigilant is the best defense we can (have),” Patterson said. “There is no perfect solution. You try to do the things that prepare you as much as possible.”

The idea of building relationships between staff and students and the community has taken root in both districts as one of the best defenses a school can have against violence. This is seen in the resurgence of the school resource officer programs and other mentor and community relations programs like Cops on Campus and increasing communication both within the district and with outside agencies.

Kelly said the way in which a school is like a small city means that it takes vigilance on the part of everyone in the community to speak up when they know something or see something amiss.

“It’s everybody’s responsibility to keep the school safe,” Kelly said.