Mid-Columbia districts focus on making schools safer

By Ty Beaver, Tri-City HeraldAugust 10, 2013 

The first day of school is two weeks away for many Mid-Columbia students.

Families are buying school supplies, teachers are readying their classrooms, student-athletes are preparing for the fall sports season.

But there also are workers installing security cameras in Kennewick. Teachers reviewing school crisis plans in Pasco. Administrators working with emergency responders to evaluate building safety.

School officials say student safety always has been paramount and they've been proactive at making improvements through the years. However, events such as the shooting massacre at Connecticut's Sandy Hook Elementary in December have given new impetus to those efforts.

"I worry about it constantly. I worry about it every day," said Prosser Superintendent Ray Tolcacher.

Small changes in technology

The Kennewick School District is installing new security cameras at all of its elementary schools before classes start Aug. 27.

The number at each school varies, but the cameras will cover blind spots wherever needed, from the playground to hallways, said spokeswoman Lorraine Cooper. The district's middle and high schools will receive similar improvements in the coming months.

"We want to try and see as much as possible," she said.

The new monitoring system is the main component of the district's safety improvements. A central command center will provide immediate access to video feeds from any of the schools. New door locks will allow the system to secure any school remotely, Cooper said, and require district employees to get new identification cards that double as key cards.

The Pasco School District restricted access into grade schools by installing security fences around playground space next to city parks. The public will have access to the playgrounds outside school hours through a large gap, but when classes are in session it will be closed by a gate, making the school's main doors the only way in.

"We just want people to know there's a right entrance into schools and a wrong entrance," said John Morgan, Pasco's assistant superintendent for operations.

The Richland School District is installing new security systems at Tapteal Elementary and Carmichael Middle School similar to the Kennewick system, said Joan Gribskov, the district's safety coordinator.

Prosser installed a new emergency radio communication system last winter, Tolcacher said. He's drafting a policy that would allow Duane Clarke, a retired Benton County sheriff's detective, to carry a firearm in Prosser schools in his duties as a security officer. The school board is expected to review the policy Aug. 20.

Kennewick and Pasco outfitted their buses with cameras. Pasco also installed a system to track them with GPS -- recording speed, stops and location. Prosser and Pasco put new locks on classroom doors, which can be locked from inside rather than with a key on the outside. Peepholes were installed on the doors of Pasco's portable classrooms so teachers can look out before opening a door if it's locked, Morgan said.

'Be safe and aware'

Kennewick planned the security improvements before Adam Lanza forced his way into Sandy Hook and killed 26 people, most of them young children, Cooper said.

But the district did cut the timetable for the new system from two years to one year, using levy funds to pay the estimated $425,000 installation cost.

Pasco school officials were among others in the region who reviewed their safety procedures following the Sandy Hook shooting. Some of Pasco's changes were based on recommendations by emergency responders who visited the schools in recent months, Morgan said.

"I think any time there's a national disaster, as a school district you look at yourself," Morgan said.

Prosser was motivated to improve safety after Grandview police pursued a suspect to an apartment complex near Prosser Heights Elementary School in late November. The schools were locked down for an hour because of the incident.

Districts also are cultivating their ties to local law enforcement. Richland school officials have worked with local police in the past but that relationship is becoming closer, Gribskov said. The district is setting up meetings between officers and staff while making sure teachers, secretaries and custodians know how to protect students.

"Our protocols will remain 'be safe and aware,' " she said.

State law now requires schools to have at least three drills a year for lockdowns. Previously, only one lockdown drill a year was required, but state lawmakers changed that a few months after the Sandy Hook tragedy.

Tolcacher emphasizes safety through district policy and in his interactions with teachers, administrators and others, he said. He's particularly concerned with making sure staff outside of buildings with students have either a school-issued radio or a cellphone to communicate in an emergency.

"I'll drive up to a P.E. teacher who's outside with students and ask where's their radio," he said.

Finding a balance

It's not always a straightforward process to install security improvements, school officials say. Cameras, locks and monitoring systems cost money and the nature of buildings themselves can make it hard to improve them.

For example, Prosser's older school layouts with numerous exterior doors weren't designed with gunmen or others targeting a school in mind, Tolcacher said.

School officials stressed it isn't possible to predict every scenario that could endanger students. Some said that anyone fully determined to hurt someone will find a way to do it.

"(Sandy Hook) was probably one of the most secure school systems in the country," Gribskov said.

There's also the risk that more drills, more fences and cameras, and a persistent atmosphere of wariness could change the learning environment for the worse. It's important that students, parents and teachers feel not only safe but welcome at their schools, officials said.

"You don't want to make a school like a prison," Tolcacher said.

But for now, districts are focused on just being as prepared as they can be, and not all are motivated by a single incident.

The Hermiston School District recently held a discussion with administrators and emergency responders about potential crises. The event, like the district's installation of security cameras two years ago, wasn't prompted by Sandy Hook, but by a duty to protect students as well as educate them, said Mike Kay, the district's director for support services.

"I think it's more of a long-term look," Kay said.

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