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  • Writer's pictureEmily Berry

A shooting puts school safety and facilities choices into sharp relief

Let's get this out of the way: I'm one of those Moms Demanding Action. I haven't volunteered with them in a long time because I decided to use my spare time on this blog instead. I send a donation to Everytown for Gun Safety every month, because every month has given me reason to be entirely unsurprised and yet grieved by the latest school massacre. The only surprising part has been that the latest one, in Parkland, Florida, has woken up so many people to how vulnerable students are at school when someone with an automatic weapon is determined to spill blood. This is true even when there are guards, gates, a moat and fences around the building, and regular drills, all of which were in place there and still were not enough to save 17 children.

It pains me to say this, because it would be in a way comforting if we could spend a money enhancing school security and all feel better -- I don't think more security will keep our kids safe from school shootings. It's the guns. It's the guns. It's the guns. Still, always, again and again, it's the guns. We have more shootings than any other country not because we have more angry or insane people, but because we have more easily accessible, powerful guns.

A security camera, an armed guard, an armed teacher -- none of these are going to stop a determined shooter with an assault rifle who has planned his attack. I have struggled with what to write about the issue of school safety, because I am conflicted. There is a part of me that thinks it is foolish to spend any energy on a response to these regular shootings besides demanding common sense gun regulation.

Since Newtown, I have thought on a regular basis that I might be sending my kids to their last day on earth when I tell them goodbye in the morning for a routine day at school. That I might have to identify them by their shoes later. I have come to understand that many of my neighbors, fellow Americans value their right to carry guns wherever and whenever so highly that they will trade my children's lives for it. That is the problem, the real threat that I am glad to see student activists taking up. (Hooray for our local kids who have been part of this).

Despite my feeling that the guns are the problem and everything else is noise, I hear my friends, other moms and dads in Shorewood. I can't dismiss their response to the shooting in Parkland, which has gone first to our building and district's safety protocols. They want to know why our kids hadn't done "hard" lockdown drills where doors are locked and class stops. They wanted to know why we get phone calls, texts and emails about low lunch account balances but parents and students don't get texts about safety threats. They wanted to know where they were supposed to meet their kids if a shooting happened. They wanted to know if their kids' classroom doors even locked.

So, although my immediate reaction is simply, again, "it's the guns," I don't think it's wrong for our school board and administrative leaders to be taking a close look at safety procedures, facility safety and lockdown drills in response to the Parkland massacre. For one thing, I can't predict any better than anyone else where the next shooting will happen, so we should seriously prepare for it in terms of at least minimizing deaths. Next, it's worth keeping in mind that improving general safety practices will help us be ready for threats like tornadoes or other fire, or even a non-custodial parent trying to take a kid from school.

I encourage anyone who is interested in what the district has been up to in response to the Florida shooting to watch the video of the last board meeting, starting around the 33-minute remark, and read this report from the administrators.

It's clear that we don't have perfectly safe buildings, best-practice protocols and that kids in many cases don't know what to do when their safety is threatened. The good news is that our administrators are talking and working on these issues, and they are paying attention to what students and parents want.

So keep up the conversation! That's the only way for the board to know how you feel. I know the district needs to hear from families about their priorities and ideas - especially where procedures like parent entry into school buildings might change.

Here are some items that caught my attention:

1) Mornings could look different next year at Lake Bluff.

Lake Bluff Elementary School Principal Angela Patterson and Atwater Elementary School Kayla Russick talked about the differences in how kids enter the building in the morning. At Atwater, kids line up in the morning and parents don't enter with them, except in Kindergarten. At Lake Bluff, parents expect to be able to enter, and do. Mrs. Patterson said the school could consider changes to make the mornings run more smoothly, allow for parent-teacher conversation and at the same time keep the building secure. She said she understands parents want to come in and feel welcome, but called that "a double-edged sword." It's also true that Lake Bluff has so many entries, even keeping all the doors closed is a challenge, so moving to a single entry is going to be a big shift.

"We need to come to some sort of culturally acceptable conclusion," board member Rodney Cain said. He's not wrong.

Bright Beginnings (preschool) parents will likely have to enter codes next year to enter buildings at Lake Bluff and Atwater.

Elementary schools will also run "hard" lockdown drill in the spring -- the best direction for kids, Mrs. Patterson said, is to remind them to listen to the adult they are with.

2) Our high school is probably our least secure building, and it will take some major investment to fully secure. The idea of enclosing passages between buildings is back, with the support of principal Tim Kenney. The board and administrators were also struggling with how to communicate with and keep kids safe who leave during the day for lunch or open periods. Text communications could be part of that answer -- the district will test infinite campus capabilities for mass texts soon, including messages to folks who opt in.

And speaking of enclosing passages, Ms. Russick also said connecting Atwater's Early Childhood Education building would improve security.

3) Communication technology inside all of our buildings is in need of some major reinvestment, and is on the "long-term" list because of cost. In some buildings, the public address system can't be hard in hallways or bathrooms. In some buildings, there is only one place to access the PA system, so if a teacher in one wing saw an attacker with a gun, she would have to try to make it to the office to get out an announcement to the entire school.

Our schools all have security cameras, but they don't all work well or at all. The superintendent said he will get price quotes, and wants to make sure we don't just replace them piecemeal.

4) Elections are going to get better security, and could even move if the district decides to advocate for a change in polling station locations. For the primary election in February, Mrs. Patterson literally guarded the door because the village didn't offer security, but the village seems on board to fix this.

5) Not all windows open, but all classroom doors lock, according to the superintendent. Some doors also have glass panels, so shooting through them would make locking less useful. Mrs. Patterson said the district is investigating "Safe-Latch" technology to make doors to easily lock quickly without a key. Windows won't be fixed anytime soon, the Superintendent said -- it's on the "long-term" list for now, because of the cost and because it would be part of the district's long-term facilities plan.

6) Some already have gotten an overview, but this year and next, more teachers will get "ALICE" training or some other type of active shooter response training, which they could also teach to peers.

7) We need to have a wide-ranging community conversation about students' cell phone use, both in terms of the rules of conduct and their safety, because I think some of the same people don't want kids checking their phone during the day in middle school or even high school, and yet if there is an active shooter on campus, the first thing I would want my kid to have is her phone so that she can call me. How do we reconcile this? Do we let them have their phones, but on vibrate? Do teachers collect the phones at the beginning of class? This is a question that board members should set policy around. It makes zero sense to me, for example, that at SIS, the official policy is no phones ever in class, and yet Principal Tim Joynt said he instructed teachers than in an emergency, that policy "goes out the window" so that kids can contact family or call for help. I guess that's assuming that window can be opened.

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