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Will added security training and technology make for…

2/13/2013

Connecticut is more than a thousand miles away from Des Moines. But two months ago, on Thursday, Dec. 13, it felt like the national news was reporting about a neighbor, a friend. The reports of 20 children murdered within the supposedly safe confines of their elementary school evoked tears and terror in people, from New England to Napa Valley, from Juneau to Puerto Rico — a terror reminiscent of 9-11, but unlike any this country has ever felt. The victims weren’t hard-working adults jumping from 100 stories up to escape the suffocation of smoky, black plumes of a collapsing skyscraper. The victims weren’t soldiers. They weren’t oppressed people in a third-world most of us have never seen and will probably never go. This time they were first-graders just shoving off the docks into what should have been a long life ahead.

photo by Cady Colosimo

photo by Cady Colosimo

Everyone got an education that day.

Now school districts across the nation are re-evaluating their strategies for survival in case such crisis repeats, as history suggests it could. “Evacuation” and “lock down” are two terms repeated in this story of how Des Moines area schools are responding to the threat of such violence, as each takes its own approach to revising emergency management strategies and safety plans in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre.

It’s an ugly, but obvious truth, as Des Moines Senior Police Officer Rodrigo Santizo puts it: “In the past, people were taught, in the case of an emergency, to sit and wait. But if you sit and wait, you become an easy target.” He’s the school resource officer (SRO) at East High School in Des Moines.

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“Even if a person is armed, there may be a way to take him down or to escape — mitigate the damage he can do,” Santizo said. “He’s there to shoot people, so sitting and waiting is not the best thing to do. If you’re backed into a corner, fight back. If you can run, run.”

Evacuation is not a new concept. Most people have experienced fire drills at school and work their whole lives. So the revisions being made to school safety strategies are, for the most part, merely enhancements of what has been in place for years. But fighting back? Teachers throwing themselves in front of bullets while their students escape? Star high school athletes tackling a gunman to slow him down? It’s a scary concept, but Santizo said, it’s more apt to deter the gunman, slow him down and save more lives.

 

MEET ALICE

Officer Santizo underwent ALICE training last spring and two more SROs are scheduled to get certified this April, according to Des Moines Police Sgt. Jason Halifax. ALICE is tougher than its name. It stands for Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter and Evacuate, and its teachings specifically focus on active shooter and violent intruder situations. It was developed 13 years ago by a team of cops who wanted to equip civilians, such as teachers and students, with tactics, knowledge and skills that would aid them in surviving deadly events — strategies that are “common sense, just not common knowledge,” according to its founders, and that are easily implemented and effective for citizens even while under traumatic stress.                

CVA_14PAGE 15ALICE programs are in 27 states, and it’s estimated that nearly 2 million students have been trained in or are now being exposed to the program. It started in the K-12 setting, but the program is now in universities, colleges, hospitals, churches, corporations and government offices nationwide.                

“There are about 2,600 students at East High School, and there is always a variety of things going on,” Santizo said. “We have to do what we can to monitor everything going on and everyone, and we have to be ready in case emergency situations.”                

Santizo has been an SRO in Des Moines, at some capacity, for more than two years. In that time he said most school violence is the typical student-on-student fights. He’s never had to address student vs. teacher violence or that of an outside intruder, and he wants to keep it that way.                

“Ever since the Connecticut incident, we’ve met with school administrators to talk about adding security measures at each of the schools,” said Halifax. “In general, Des Moines schools are safe, but we’ve taken a lot of steps to add more security.”

 

SCHOOLS REACT

Several local schools were quick to react in the wake of the Sandy Hook shooting. Certain aspects of school security plans cannot be publicly discussed in order to better ensure the safety of students and staff, but some school officials were willing to outline a few specifics on the topic.                

For the most part, urban and suburban districts of various sizes are approaching the issue similarly. Most central Iowa parents have seen a letter from the superintendent of their school reassuring them that, “school security is a district-wide, ongoing and evolving conversation between administrators, staff, parents and students,” and that “safety is our top priority.” And it is.                

Many classrooms are now equipped with posted charts on what to do in the event of an emergency, much like the everyday tornado and fire drill charts. Almost every area school district has held countless meetings with local public safety personnel and created crisis teams. Several local districts were represented at a recent meeting with Iowa Homeland Security at the Area Education Agency in Johnston. Along with members from the State Fire Marshals, the group formed an unofficial “sort of ad hoc committee brought together for the education sector,” said Iowa Homeland Security lead planner David Johnston.                

“We’re just doing what we always do — planning, training and exercises — but right now, over the last couple of months, we’re doing that with a stronger focus on schools,” he said. “We know schools do a very, very good job with fire evacuation and tornado drills, but a lot of schools are thinking beyond that.”                

Administrators and staff at Johnston Community Schools are currently conducting a security audit, “a measure we find is invaluable to our students, their parents and our staff,” said Laura Dillavou, communications and marketing coordinator.              

“Our security audits also include police and fire services. The district is in close contact with both to ensure prevention and preparedness in the event we do have a crisis.”                

The Des Moines Community School District implemented security key cards for staff members almost eight years ago at 26 buildings. By 2011, all buildings had key card access units installed, but the number of doors with the feature has increased by more than 40 since the Sandy Hook massacre in Connecticut. Courtesy of Des Moines Public School District

The Des Moines Community School District implemented security key cards for staff members almost eight years ago at 26 buildings. By 2011, all buildings had key card access units installed, but the number of doors with the feature has increased by more than 40 since the Sandy Hook massacre in Connecticut. Courtesy of Des Moines Public School District

That’s true for almost every school district in the area, including West Des Moines, Waukee and DMPS, where administrators have also conversed with the Council of Great City Schools (a network organization comprised of the nation’s largest school districts) and the Urban Education Network (which represents the largest school districts in Iowa) to share and gain ideas. DMPS is a member of both organizations.                

Des Moines Schools’ pre-existing 28E agreement with the DMPD allows the district to have full access to well-trained professional law enforcement officials. Currently there are six SROs assigned respectively to East, Hoover, Lincoln, North, Roosevelt and Scavo high schools; two officers split Des Moines’ 10 middle schools between them; and all are supervised by a police sergeant.               

“In addition to the SROs, the district regularly works with DMPD on a range of security-related issues, from seeking grant funds to advice and counsel on safety procedure and issues,” explained Phil Roeder, DMPS director of community relations. “In addition, the district has a full-time, 10-person security staff which is on duty in shifts 24-7-365.”                

The security team members are divided into two sections, he said: Patrol and Dispatch. The Patrol division is on the streets primarily responding to alarms at schools and doing general monitoring of district properties. They are unarmed but are trained to call the police in cases of intruder alarms or other potentially dangerous situations. The Dispatch division monitors all video cameras, key card accesses and alarms. They also dispatch the patrol staff and/or contact police depending on the scenario.                

“Our leadership team at the district is also doing a district-wide review of safety procedures and protocols to see if there are any gaps,” Roeder advised. “All of our schools have or will be doing various lock-down drills to review their own security procedures, and our staff responsible for security is looking at some further training opportunities available later this year, too.”                

Most Des Moines students are now mandated to wear their identification badges during school hours, which started the week of the Connecticut incident. Anyone seen without one is immediately stopped by staff, Santizo said.                

“Even visitors get issued a photo ID, which is printed in the office, and the office staff keeps a log of the time the person arrived to the time the person leaves,” he said.                

Des Moines Police Sgt. Jason Halifax stands ready on the East High School campus. Photo by Amber Williams

Des Moines Police Sgt. Jason Halifax stands ready on the East High School campus. Photo by Amber Williams

That started a couple weeks after Sandy Hook. In recent weeks, police have been analyzing the placement of the current 468 security cameras that are located district-wide, combing for “blind spots and blind corners in and around the buildings,” he added.                

“That number increases with each passing year and does not include video cameras on school busses,” said Roeder.                

In addition to surveillance, all district buildings are now accessible only by key card access points, and all employees are required to have a key card to gain access to their school or office building.                

“(Some of these things) have long been in place at Des Moines Public Schools. School safety and security is anything but a new issue, but it is also an issue that is constantly being revised and improved,” Roeder said. “A little over two years ago, the district received grant funds to develop an updated emergency procedures plan. It addresses several different potentially dangerous scenarios and is in place at each building.”              

Most school districts now require all administrators and staff to participate in regularly scheduled trainings on emergency and crisis response methods, and suburban schools are no exception.                

The West Des Moines Public School District began a review of the crisis plan in late fall, prior to the tragedy in Newtown, Conn. The Board of Directors and administrators have been toiling over the planning document itself to determine if any updates or changes need to be made and are still in the process of flushing out the details. The district already uses security cameras and locked entrances at all K-8 buildings and the alternative high school. Valley High School uses both security guards and School Resource Officers, according to Elaine Watkins-Miller, director of school community relations and board secretary.              

CVA_14PAGE 17“We are beginning to conduct a building and process review. This began with a meeting with all building principals to review our crisis plan and to bring forward items to address in their particular buildings,” she said. “The next step is to gather our district Crisis Team to begin to review suggestions and information that we have gathered at this point. We have also gathered information and suggestions from our parents, teachers and support staff, and they will be part of the overall review of both our plan and our buildings.”                

This is true for many area schools, including Urbandale and Waukee. In Waukee, administrators gathered suggestions for public safety officials and parents in the district, and the list is long. But communications coordinator Nicole Lawrence said they’re handling it like a punch list, taking every consideration seriously. Among the listed items are metal detectors at entrances, bulletproof windows and what are nationally-known as “Columbine locks,” which are fixed to classrooms doors so teachers can lock students inside, similar to the way hotel room doors work, making a classroom a safe-room.                

“All things are being looked at,” she said.                

Like most districts, cost is an issue. Metal detectors at school entrances means more manpower to monitor them. Most of these measures are still in the feasibility phases.

 

OPPORTUNE IMPROVEMENTS

With a district as large as Des Moines and perpetually growing suburbs like Waukee and West Des Moines, district-wide building renovations and expansions are nearly always in the works, which affords the school administrators opportunities to continually re-evaluate their safety protocols, structures and devices and implement them accordingly.               

“Throughout the district over the past decade, issues relating to safety are always incorporated into the projects,” Roeder said. “One example is re-designing schools so that more centralized and secure entrances are in place at all buildings, with offices that have a better vantage of who is entering and exiting the school and in more cases requiring visitors to enter through the office.”                

Standing just inside East High School, for example, students buzz in and out as the homeroom bell rings. As the hallways quiet, late arrivers hurriedly yank on the doors to find they’ve been locked out. Santizo points them toward another door, which routes them through the office — the only way to get into the school after it’s been locked down.                

The added visibility of office staff can be witnessed by any visitor at newer school buildings. But what most people may not notice is that many of the new classrooms are now fitted with intruder locks as part of building renovation plans. In addition, Roeder said mobile classrooms are becoming a thing of the past in Des Moines.                

“They are both hard to secure as well as inefficient,” he said.                

The district has gone from 34 mobile units in 2008 to 15 this year, three of which are not in use, and three more will be eliminated after this school year, he explained.               

“That represents a reduction from about 71,000 square feet of modular units six years ago to 38,000 square feet today. To put that in perspective, our school buildings at DMPS total more than 5.5 million square feet.”                

DMPS buildings are poised for enhancements and renovations again this year. Roeder said six more schools will have renovation work completed by this summer: Hoyt Middle School ($7.5M), Findley Elementary School ($5.5M), Pleasant Hill Elementary School ($5.6M), Park Avenue Elementary School ($1.8M), Edmunds Academy ($13M) and Jefferson Elementary School ($5.7M).                

“Those dollar amounts are total project costs including security-related improvements,” he added.                

But it’s difficult to predict the cost of implementing certain safety measures.                

“A lot of it is budgetary, and there are currently no dollars allocated for this, but I’d be surprised if funding wasn’t something that’s seriously being discussed legislatively right now,” Johnston said.              

In the meantime, schools are focusing on “getting the right pieces in place with teachers, staff, administrators, the community, so everyone is on the same page,” Officer Santizo said.                

“We’re limited only by our imaginations.” After rethinking a moment, he added, “And our pocket books.” CV

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