West metro schools tighten up checks on visitors

  • Article by: CANDICE WHEELER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 13, 2013 - 11:09 AM

In the wake of the Sandy Hook massacre, they will more closely screen guests, but there is strong resistance to using armed guards.

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Parent Andreaua Adams presented an ID to secretary Lori Opitz to show how the new security system works at the School of Engineering and Arts in Robbinsdale.

Photo: David Joles, Star Tribune

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School districts across the west metro, from Edina to Robbinsdale and Bloomington to Wayzata, are improving the security at their buildings, including more precautions aimed at visitors.

The Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings brought up concerns for school safety and security across the metro, from staff members and parents alike.

Since Feb. 4, all schools in the Robbinsdale district have upgraded to an identification scanning system that electronically verifies the identity of incoming visitors. The plan was in the works before Sandy Hook.

"It's just a better visual," said Kim Hiel, principal of the School of Engineering and Arts in Golden Valley, a K-5 facility. "It's a nice way to keep an eye on who's currently in the building, how long they've been in the building and if they should still be in the building."

All doors are locked at all times during the school day, and visitors have to access the buzzer located outside the building in order to enter. Signs direct them to the nearby office where they are asked to present a form of government-issued photo identification.

The ID is then scanned through a card reader and checked for authenticity. A time-stamped visitor badge with the visitor's name and classroom destination is issued.

A complete count of visitors is recorded via the new system each day, as visitors must check in and check out of the school.

"We did get feedback after Sandy Hook about parents wanting something like this," said Brian Koch, safety and emergency management program director. "I think you're going to see more schools do it within the next year, even with budgets being tight."

Security guards?

Armed guards are not favored. An armed security guard would create an unnecessary sense of anxiety and worry among the children, especially at the elementary school level, Hiel said.

"After what occurred, some parents may have said we need security officers in the school, but you have to see how it affects the students," she said. "We are a family and we're keeping them safe. We don't need someone with a gun standing at the door."

The School of Engineering and Arts, which opened in September, keeps records of visitor information in the system, as well as court orders, restraining orders, trespassing notices and whether a visitor has posed visitation problems in the past.

"If there was a highly disruptive event with someone that visited the building, we would be able to have that notation on there," Hiel said. "If they do transfer to another school within the district, that information travels."

The new security system has been tested at the Robbinsdale district office for the past year, and it is now active at all schools at all levels within the district, which includes Robbinsdale and parts of Golden Valley, Brooklyn Center, New Hope, Crystal, Plymouth and Brooklyn Park.

In Edina

Edina is in the process of evaluating the security at its schools.

"The [Sandy Hook] tragedy in December created a greater sense of urgency," said Susan Brott, director of communications and community engagement for Edina Public Schools. "So we are conducting a district-wide safety and security audit."

The district is looking to make its buildings more secure, and is partnering with local law enforcement and architects to look at redesigning the entrances, Brott said.

"We are going through every single building and looking at every entrance so we can get more data," she said.

Edina schools do not currently have armed security guards at their entrances, but they do have officers from the Edina Police Department on duty during the school day.

"We have an officer that's based at the high school, one that splits his time between the two middle schools, and they also service all of our elementary schools," Brott said. "They are not security guards -- that's not what they are meant to be. They are resource officers for us." They generally wear plain clothes but are armed in case of an emergency.

All schools also have greeters who direct visitors to the main office.

"Part of the greeter atmosphere is to make it a welcoming environment for all who come to the school. It's not meant to be a lockdown facility," Brott said. "We want our schools to be open and welcoming learning environments."

The safety and security audit will show whether Edina needs to improve its current security. Parents are expressing their concerns and are working with the schools to make the necessary improvements, Brott said.

"Our parents want to know what else we can do," she said. "But no safety plan is ever going to stop some person we can't predict. Having a security guard isn't necessarily going to deter everything; there are many factors that go into creating a safe learning environment for kids."

Brott said the message that needs to come from the audit is that Edina schools are safe, but they are looking for ways to improve.

Some schools, including Countryside Elementary, are taking steps to create a volunteer-based welcome desk that will guide visitors to the office so they can check in, Brott said.

It is Edina district policy to lock all the doors during school hours except for the main entrance. The parent volunteers will guide visitors to the main office.

"We are looking at how we can get parents to volunteer for that as a short-term way of addressing the issue, but certainly we need to look more long-term," Brott said.

"What we have done is set up a welcome desk and [seek] parent volunteers to man that desk," Countryside Principal Karen Bergman said. "We are asking them to greet people as they enter the building and direct them to the office so they can sign in and receive a visitors badge when they are here."

Bergman said the reaction to the welcome desk has been very favorable among parents, and the volunteer schedule is filling up fast. "It gives us an opportunity to just review what we're doing, and to become a little more vigilant about certain things. Our welcome desk is an example of that."

Edina Public Schools also will conduct five lockdown drills annually and will work with local law enforcement to ensure that schools are prepared for emergencies.

The district is hoping to have the results of the audit presented to the school board in March.

In Bloomington

"After the tragedy in Newtown, we have had many parents and community members reach out and express their concerns about our schools' safety procedures," said Rick Kaufman, executive director of community relations and emergency management for the Bloomington School District. "We are in the process of a safety and security review to improve our crisis management response plans."

Kaufman is coordinating the effort and said students and the community have been involved in the audit.

Both Kennedy and Jefferson high schools have unarmed security persons at each entrance to make sure visitors are checking in at the office. Kennedy's security person also monitors the video feeds from cameras inside and outside of the school.

The district also has four police liaison officers on duty in their schools who are armed and in uniform. They are patrol officers who have many duties and are not always in the schools.

The audit will consist of two phases involving extensive research at each school.

"In phase one of this review, we interview and have discussions with our community," Kaufman said. "There have been suggestions by staff and parents for having more personnel to serve as greeters that will help visitors check in."

Kaufman said they will complete phase one next week and hope to complete phase two, an evaluation of current safety procedures at each school, by mid-March. "By April 1, we expect to give our recommendations to our board," she said.

In Wayzata

The Wayzata School District sent out a questionnaire in January asking if parents would support or oppose a property tax increase for improved security entrances at all elementary and middle schools. The response has been positive, according to Chace B. Anderson, superintendent for Wayzata Public Schools.

The results of the survey showed that 61 percent of respondents strongly supported the property tax increase and 7 percent strongly opposed it.

"We have added elementary school entrance greeters at six of our seven elementary schools," Anderson said in an e-mail. "The seventh elementary school already has a physical layout whereby visitors pass through the main office to sign in."

Candace Wheeler is a University of Minnesota journalism student on assignment for the Star Tribune.

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