Recovery

Yes to Keyless Locks, No to Armed Teachers: How an Anchorage School District Panel Suggests Keeping Students Safe

'We are already scared having to deal with gun violence in school, and I don't want to have to go to school seeing my teacher armed.'

by Tegan Hanlon, Alaska Dispatch News, Anchorage / April 6, 2018

(TNS) - Asked to consider ideas for keeping students safe, an Anchorage School District committee said it wants to see all schools using keyless locks and digital security cameras. But it does not want metal detectors installed in schools and rejected the idea of arming teachers.

"We are already scared having to deal with gun violence in school, and I don't want to have to go to school seeing my teacher armed," high school freshman Alexa Todd told the Anchorage School Board this week. "It is scary."

Todd served on one of the committees that the Anchorage School District created in the wake of the Florida school shooting on Feb. 14 that left 17 people dead. The district charged the groups with reviewing Anchorage schools' safety and security measures. Across the country, similar discussions have been taking place about how best to protect students.

"This is important stuff," district chief operating officer Tom Roth said in an interview. "We take this responsibility very seriously."

Roth led the 21-member committee tasked with looking at how the district could make its school buildings safer. The committee included parents, students, principals, teachers and police.

On Monday, Roth presented their findings to the School Board. The findings are suggestions and not policy.

Here's a list of some security options the committee supported and those that it rejected, plus one change put in place this week.

Security changes with broad committee support

— Allow police access to schools' real-time security footage: The Anchorage School District is working with the Anchorage Police Department this week to give police dispatch access to schools' live security camera footage.

In an active shooter situation, this would allow a police dispatcher to pull up that school's security camera feeds and tell responding officers where the shooter is in the building, what they look like and what weapons they have, Roth said.

"Our officers wouldn't have to slow down," Anchorage Police Department Deputy Chief Ken McCoy told the School Board on Monday. "We would know exactly what's going on, we would know exactly where to go and that information would be critical to us."

— Upgrade security cameras: The committee ranked updating school security cameras as its top priority. All of the district's schools, except for a few charter schools in leased buildings, have security cameras, Roth said.

Most of the cameras are digital, but there's still 15 schools with analog cameras. It would cost about $3.5 million to convert them to digital cameras — which have a clearer image and allow people to zoom in on the footage, he said.

The district already had plans to install digital cameras in all of its schools over time, as it acquires the funding. But the district would like to speed up that timeline, Superintendent Deena Bishop said.

— Get rid of keys: The entire committee also wants the district to get rid of keys and move to a keyless entry system. There are about 32,000 doors with locks on them throughout the district and about 60,000 keys. A lost key becomes a big problem, Roth said.

If schools moved to a keyless entry system, the district could disable a lost key fob, Roth said. It wouldn't have to replace the whole lock.

And, he said, a keyless entry system would allow the district to control locks remotely. It could manage the time of day doors could be opened. It could also open or lock specific doors in emergency situations.

There's broad support to move to a keyless entry system, Roth said. However, the project needs funding. The district estimates it would cost roughly $3.5 million to install electronic locking systems on all exterior doors.

— Create a tip line: The district is working on creating an anonymous tip line for students to report concerns about classmates' behavior that may seem risky or threatening, Roth said.

The committee wants to give another option to students who may be wary of going to a school employee directly and reporting a friend or peer's actions. Roth said the district still needs to determine how it would staff a tip line.

Ideas the committee rejected

— Fixed metal detectors: No one on the committee voted in favor of installing fixed metal detectors at schools. It would detract from the high school experience, they said. It could also lead to long lines to enter school, like waiting to get through security at the airport.

"Metal detectors kind of put you on a path away from a school environment toward a fortress," Roth said.

He said the district does have handheld metal detection wands for staff to use if necessary.

— Give teachers guns: Arming teachers also received no votes of support from the committee, which does not set district policy but is making suggestions to the school board.

Students said they would not feel safe with armed teachers. McCoy, APD deputy chief, said giving teachers guns could create complications during a police response to an active shooter. Plus, he said, there are already school resource officers in the district.

"As far as arming teachers, I think there are a lot of better options," he told the Board on Monday. "I think having a robust SRO program suffices."

The program includes about 16 police officers who staff high schools and some middle schools. Those officers are armed.

ALICE drills remain

When it comes to how schools would respond to a violent intruder, the district's protocol, called ALICE, remains in place, said Joe Schmidt, the district's senior director for school safety. ALICE stands for alert, lockdown, inform, counter and evacuate.

"We reviewed it," he said in an interview last week. "We found that it is designed for basically what happened in Florida — getting people away from the danger."

Schools must hold ALICE drills at least four times each school year, Schmidt said.

The district has also reviewed how it evaluates and communicates threats.

Another committee convened by the district earlier this year reviewed how schools relay information to students and their parents about any safety threats and the investigation of those threats. Bishop said the goal is to communicate correct information as early as possible.

The district also hopes to have a district-wide threat assessment protocol in place by fall so responses are uniform across schools.

One option not discussed at the School Board meeting, but used at one Anchorage high school this school year, is firing blanks during a drill to teach students what gunfire sounds like.

At East High, a school resource officer has fired blanks from a handgun twice during active shooter drills in December and March.

Students knew about it ahead of time, said Principal Sam Spinella. The goal isn't to scare students, but to make them aware, he said.

In news reports about school shootings he had read that some students told reporters that they didn't initially know that the gunfire was in fact gunfire. They thought it was something else, maybe a car backfiring or fireworks.

Schmidt said decisions to fire blanks during drills would be made on a school-by-school basis.

Aside from firing blanks, Spinella has also limited the number of doors unlocked at East High in the mornings to five. Those fives doors are also now staffed to monitor who is coming and going from the school, he said.

"Twenty years ago," he said, "we never had to do this."

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