The tragedy of Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., has slipped from the headlines, but the lessons learned from the mass shooting of students and teachers last December are translating into millions of dollars in security improvements at Coeur d’Alene schools.
The school district is upgrading door locks, surveillance cameras and fencing, tightening building access and updating emergency response plans at all 17 of its schools.
Even the bus fleet is getting attention: new digital radios with GPS navigation, security cameras and large numbers affixed to the roof to help police track down from the air any bus that goes missing.
Coeur d’Alene School District officials say they hope the updates make for a significant deterrent to school violence while still allowing schools to function well and remain welcoming to the community.
“We can’t let perfect be the enemy of good, because I can’t get perfect and still have a school. But we’re going to be dang good,” said Wendell Wardell, chief operating officer for the district.
Reacting to the Sandy Hook shooting that left 20 young students and six educators dead, the Coeur d’Alene School Board decided early this year to tack on $1.4 million to a property tax levy to overhaul school safety. Voters approved the one-time funds, and work is underway.
When classes begin after Labor Day, teachers, students and parents will see some of the changes right away, and may never notice others.
One of the big changes is replacing locks on all classroom doors – a $65,000 project – so they can be locked from the inside.
“Surprisingly few of our classrooms lock from the inside,” Wardell said. “The idea is a teacher won’t have to expose the kids to the hallway to seal the door. It provides us with a measure of comfort that they can seal off the room in a lockdown scenario.”
In another change that could save lives in an emergency, all teachers and staff members will have the ability to commence a schoolwide lockdown from any classroom or office.
“We’re empowering teachers,” district spokesperson Laura Rumpler said. “In the past you had to communicate to the front office and the front office initiated it.”
One of the more conspicuous changes coming is an intricate process for entering schools.
Parents and others will no longer be able to walk freely through the front doors. Instead, visitors will enter a secure vestibule monitored by cameras. To gain entry through a second set of doors, they must pick up a phone and communicate with the main office, identify themselves and be issued a photo ID pass. Only then will the interior doors be unlocked electronically.
“The whole thing is about knowing who’s approaching our buildings, who is in our buildings, when they’re in our buildings,” Wardell said.
Students will not be subjected to the entry routine, and school employees will have key cards to get in. But the public, including residents who regularly volunteer in schools, will need to adjust to the tighter controls, officials said.
All but three schools have a double set of doors at the front entrance now, and vestibules will be built in those that don’t. Computer-controlled locking doors already have been tested at Coeur d’Alene High School.
The principal there, Warren Olson, said he’s excited about the changes.
“I really like the idea that all schools now are focusing on trying to have one, possibly two entrances to the building, rather than be open all around,” Olson said.
The district also is about to buy state-of-the-art surveillance cameras – more than it has used before – for school hallways, entrances and exterior areas. The cameras, as well as a new phone system for the district, are covered by a construction bond approved a year ago. The camera system alone is expected to cost around $900,000 to $1 million.
The technology will allow police responding to an emergency at a school to tap into the surveillance system from their patrol cars and see what’s going on inside.
The district also upgraded fencing on all school grounds in the spring and early summer.
Not all of the changes involve new equipment or construction work. Teachers and staff members will continue receiving training on safety practices.
“A plain-clothes policeman went into Lake City High School last spring and got stopped by two teachers saying, ‘Can we help you? Why are you in our building?’ And hooray for them, because that’s also part of the security process,” Wardell said. “If a building staff person sees someone that they don’t know, they have every right to say, ‘Can I help you? Do we know you?’ ”
Tighter security will take time to get used to, but it’s well worth it, Olson said.
“It’s kind of like airport security after 9/11. It took people a while to adjust, but I think everybody – even though it’s an inconvenience sometimes – still appreciates that it’s done,” he said. “It’s the day and age we live in.”