Security focus now includes Minnesota's grade schools

  • Article by: HERÓN MÁRQUEZ ESTRADA , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 14, 2013 - 6:52 AM

Farmington and other districts are weighing ways to improve school safety.

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Among the security features in the new Watertown-Mayer Elementary School are wide hallways and lockers with no doors.

Photo: Herón Márquez Estrada, Star Tribune

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Minnesota school officials are expanding their focus from security at high schools to the state's more than 900 elementary schools, which often haven't had the same safety precautions or personnel as secondary schools.

The new focus comes in the wake of last month's horrific shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., in which 20 children and six adults were killed.

Remodeling elementary schools, which often have multiple entrances and open floor plans that make access more difficult to control, is emerging as a priority.

No educators have yet endorsed the National Rifle Association proposal to add armed guards or to arm teachers at schools, but some districts are talking about adding resource officers or Wal-Mart-style greeters at elementary schools to keep an eye on entrances.

In Farmington, principals, teachers and administrators have been fielding queries from parents and residents concerned about security, especially at the district's five elementary schools. Tonight, that discussion moves from the classrooms to the living rooms of Farmington when school and city officials hold a community meeting about security.

"This is a community issue," said Farmington Superintendent Jay Haugen. "Security is an ongoing conversation, one we've been having for years, but right now it's of very high interest. We've been getting calls ever since the incident in Connecticut."

The Farmington meeting is believed to be the first time a school district in the state has held a citywide discussion on school security since the Sandy Hook tragedy.

"I think there is a sense of urgency right now," said Fred Storti, executive director of the Minnesota Elementary School Principals Association.

But, as school districts and boards return from the winter holiday break, they are confronting the harsh reality that whatever they decide to do will come at a cost, possibly in the range of millions of dollars.

Some school districts are considering asking parents and residents to pick up the tab through levy questions or property tax increases.

"I think that is a tab worth paying, whether it is local taxpayers or the state," said Karsten Anderson, superintendent of the Red Wing school district. "I think the public would be very supportive."

Questionnaire

The Wayzata district will soon find out. It's sending out a survey that will ask the question: "Please tell me if you would strongly support, somewhat support, somewhat oppose or strongly oppose a property tax increase for improved security entrances for all elementary and middle schools?"

In 2007, while superintendent of the Watertown-Mayer school district, Anderson oversaw the construction of what is arguably the safest elementary school in the state. Watertown-Mayer Elementary features controlled access, large windows and dozens of security cameras inside and out that record every movement.

"It was definitely worth it," said Anderson, who believes new school construction will likely follow the same ideas.

In the short term, Wayzata schools are looking to fill recently created greeter positions so that someone can be stationed at the front doors of district elementary facilities.

Longer term, the district is also in the midst of its next construction planning phase and is looking at remodeling grade schools to improve security.

"That is one of the things that is under consideration," said Amy Parnell, the communications director for the Wayzata district. "All of us are taking a look at what we can do to improve security."

In Lakeville, volunteers -- some with police training -- are being used as part of a task force convened to study the district's security measures and make recommendations on immediate and longer term changes. The task force has its first meeting Monday afternoon.

"Our world has changed to such a degree," said Lakeville Superintendent Lisa Snyder, "that unfortunately we might need to lock our schools."

Discussions underway

Lakeville is reviewing its procedures in light of Sandy Hook, but the district had begun security discussions at elementary schools weeks before that.

Snyder said that in early December, a non-custodial stepparent walked into a grade school and had lunch with a child she was legally not supposed to be around. The presence of the intruder, and the ease with which she was able to reach the first-grader, raised alarms bells.

Parents met with Snyder shortly thereafter to air questions about security.

"This helped [serve] as a wake-up call," Snyder said. "That should not happen at our schools."

Then, a few weeks later, Sandy Hook happened and those initial discussions took on a greater sense of urgency.

"The vigilance is up," Haugen said.

Heron Marquez • 952-746-3281

  • COMMUNITY CONCERNS

    Farmington school officials will discuss how to make schools safer at a community meeting Monday night.

    WHEN: 7 p.m.

    WHERE: Farmington High School, 20655 Flagstaff Av.

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