Most Saline Area Schools buildings were designed with openness and caring in mind. But after gunman Adam Lanza shot and killed 20 students and six staff members at a school Newtown Connecticut, school district officials have begun discussing how much of that openness needs to be sacrificed in exchange for security.
City of Saline officials and local law enforcement leaders were present as the school district leaders discussed school safety at Tuesday’s Board of Education meeting.
Board President Dave Holden said the board was taking up the issue in the wake of the school shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut.
“It became rather graphic that we need to take safety and security seriously. I think the days of saying that it can’t happen here are over,” Holden said. “We need to make sure that parents have the security that their students are going to be safe. I think we owe that to our faculty and staff. I think there is anxiety in the community and that this is an appropriate time to look at this.”
Holden said he hoped Tuesday’s study session would help the board determine if there are additional measures to take to improve security.
The meeting was attended by Saline Mayor Brian Marl, City Manager Todd Campbell, Saline Police Chief Larry Hrinik, Pittsfield Township Public Safety Director Matthew Harshberger, and Pittsfield police officer Tiffany Small, who is the resource officer at Saline High School
Holden said he believed the board would rely on safety recommendations from a committee of local law enforcement leaders and school administrators.
Report on Safety and Security
Much of the study session revolved around a report on safety and security procedures from Curt Ellis, assistant superintendent of human resources. A related study session will be held on mental health in February.
The Sandy Hook tragedy heightened awareness about safety and security, Ellis said, but Saline Area Schools have always been focused on ways to improve school safety.
Ellis said the district constantly studies and reviews how to react to situations. Last spring, as hundreds of elementary school students were at a field day at Saline High School, and hundreds more were en route, there was a bank robbery in the city. The school was locked down without incident. Ellis said the district reviewed its reaction to the situation to see if there were better alternatives.
Ellis stressed that training and drills were an important part of a solution. He said that drills needed to changed to be more effective, noting that during a recent small fire at Saline Middle School, nobody pulled a fire alarm.
“So one thing we’ve decided to do is to make sounded the fire alarm part of the drill. We want to make sure that people know where the fire alarms are,” Ellis said.
Another important aspect is changing drill routines. For example, Ellis said, as part of the drill, hallways can be blocked in an effort to make teachers and students consider other ways to vacate a building.
Controlling Access to the Schools
A critical part of school safety is controlling access to the school. Ellis said that Saline’s schools were designed to be restrictive.
“They were designed to be caring and open,” Ellis said.
Past failed bond initiatives included plans to redesign building entrances to restrict access to buildings. Schools have taken steps, including the addition of rope lines to direct visitors to the office. At Harvest Elementary, a reception desk as been moved closer to the entrance.
Visitor policies are being studied. Ellis said the district needs parents and community members to buy into the procedures.
“If you happen to be in a building and don’t have a visitor’s badge on, please don’t be offended if someone stops and asks your identity. I would actually ask that you be offended if someone doesn’t stop you,” Ellis said.
Ellis said maintaining security protocol is more challenging when special events draw hundreds of visitors to a building.
Superintendent Scot Graden said that while the district is mindful of security, it must also consider what it wants the schools to look like. Elementary school events like Grandparents day bring many new visitors to the district
“Grandparents day is a great opportunity to connect with our families and community,” Graden said. “There were some early discussions about whether or not we continue to do such things. The feedback we’ve gotten is that we need to continue to do them, but that we need to do them in a way that is as safe as possible.”
Ellis said the district would consult with other districts and continue to work on strategies. The district may consider new technology that can track when visitors leave a building. Ellis said the district has considered a buzzer system.
The district is also looking at surveillance cameras. The high school is the only building in the district with a camera system. Ellis said the camera feeds can be piped to local law enforcement agencies, who could use the video feed in the event of an incident.
Another access option is key-card access to each building.
A Shooter's Profile
Another important safety aspect is being aware of people who fit the “shooter” profile. Ellis said the district should be able to spot local, disenfranchised residents who might fit that profile. Ellis said the district needs parents to understand that district employees want to hear from anyone who might be concerned about an individual.
“If a parent had a concern about a child, they could call virtually anyone in the district, who would be responsive to them,” Ellis said. “And if we couldn’t help, we could put them in touch with someone who could.
Pittsfield Township Public Safety Director Matt Harshberger said school safety will be a subject of a county-wide law enforcement meeting July 31. He said tackling the issue will require a partnership between many public school districts and many law enforcement agencies, and that it was time for everyone to get on the same page.
For example, Harshberger said, Saline Area Schools are served by Saline Police, Saline Fire, and Pittsfield Public Safety. Pittsfield also works with Ann Arbor Public Schools.
“From our standpoint, we need to get Saline schools and Ann Arbor schools on the same page so that you’re doing the same thing,” Harsberger said.
Chief Larry Hrinik said Saline and Pittsfield police work well together and meet often to discuss issues.
Trustee Todd Carter said worried about overplaying the security issue.
“I would hate to see Saline Area Schools become a police state,” Carter said.
Harshberger and Hrinik agreed there needed to be a balance.
“Schools aren’t meant to be prisons,” Hrinik said.
“There have been some districts in the state and nationally that have moved rather quickly. I’m not sure that’s the best approach. I don’t think we want to have a fortress environment,” Holden said. “But we want to have a safe environment.”
Funding safety technology or building improvements is yet another issue. Holden and Trustee Dave Zimmer said they’d like to work with the state or federal government to see what grants are available.
Spending general fund money, Carter said, means less money for the classroom.
Trustee Craig Hoeft, who as Saline Fire Chief sees the issue from an emergency responders issues, said he understood the desire to react to the tragedy. He said he was glad to see the board had a policy in place to address the issues and he looked forward to hearing recommendations.
Saline Alternative High School Principal Carol Melcher, Assistant High School Principal Marie Schluter, Officer Small, Ellis and representatives from the Saline Police Department and Pittsfield Township Department of Public Safety serve on a committee that will make recommendations to the school district.