Friday, January 18, 2013

Superintendent and police chief discuss school safety

By Alannah Allbrett

School Superintendent, Bob Vian, spoke out about one of America’s biggest concerns right now, the safety of our children in the public school system. Mr. Vian brings with him many years of experience in leadership and administrative roles in both the Idaho and Oregon school systems as well as that of having been a teacher.

Mr. Vian said when he came to Timberline Schools (TLS) as Principal, he brought with him the emergency plan used in Oregon but found it was not applicable here. “The schools are so dissimilar,” he said “that it had no basis here.” In Klamath Falls, Oregon, where he was the principal, they had one single building with a single entrance. Joint School District #171, which consists of Orofino, Timberline, Peck, and Cavendish schools, are diverse structures. Both Orofino and Pierce high schools have outer shop buildings – separate from the main buildings. Neither school has an out front office entrance, separate from the main building. At OHS, for instance, one must enter double doors in front, go up several steps, and proceed down a hallway to enter the office doors inside the school – not the best setup for school security.

As Mr. Vian pointed out, when our schools were built, security was not the issue that it is today because shootings at schools were unheard of. “Nowadays,” he said, “school safety is something we always think about. Things are better today than they were a year ago, however. The buildings are significantly more secure. But you have to realize these buildings were built at a time when no one could anticipate this” he said.

He added, “This year, we’ve attempted to lock as many outside doors as possible, directing the public to enter in only one or two areas.” When asked what communication systems are in place he said that nowadays everybody carries a cell phone, and Orofino Police Officer Monte Toombs works closely with the school. He has thought of the possibility of getting prison staff involved in the event of an emergency, in securing the facilities, as they are close and already trained in security issues.

Speaking of crises training in the schools, Mr. Vian said they have begun to practice “lockdown drills.” During a lockdown drill, rooms are locked, and children are pulled out of the hallways and instructed to stay away from windows and doors where they would be visible to anyone outside. Police are notified when schools are conducting a drill, and Officer Toombs has been present to watch the drills take place. Vian said that Toombs attended a meeting Wednesday morning, Jan. 9, with the principals of both OHS and OES. “Drills took place at least twice here,” he said, “before the recent shootings in Connecticut occurred.”

Vian said that ultimately, safety issues are their number one concern “Any security measures need to be done building by building. As the Superintendent, it [responsibility] comes back to me, but I task that out to the principals because each building is different. Our motto here is ‘slow an intruder down,’ put as many obstacles in the way as possible.” With that in mind, the schools are now attempting to keep outside doors locked where possible – a big undertaking considering OHS alone has 12 outside doors and students, and staff alike, are not used to having locked doors.

Vian said things are a little different in Pierce, being situated in Clearwater County, not Orofino proper. Sheriff Deputy, and School Resource Officer, Dave Koontz, maintains an office at Timberline. “He spends a couple hours a week up there. Sometimes, he just catches up on reports, but he’s in the building so that the kids get to know him,” said Vian. “Peck, though part of our school district, is in Nez Perce County. In the event of an emergency Orofino Police Department and Clearwater County Sheriffs would, no doubt respond. As they have mutual response plans.”

Police Chief Jeff Wilson corroborated: “It is very possible that Clearwater County and Orofino PD would respond to Peck. We are often closer to Peck than any Nez Perce County deputies so if any serious incident occurs in the Peck area we may be requested by Nez Perce County to respond and we would do so upon that request.”

“Video recording systems are in place in both Timberline and OHS” said Mr. Vian. “We were able to get good video of the guys walking down halls when the school burglary took place” [last year]. “Although they had masks on, we could tell other important details that helped identify them” said Mr. Vian.

When asked if students understand the purpose of lockdown drills, Vian said, “The kids, fifth grade and above probably do, and we just tell them we’re going to have a drill. The younger kids don’t need a reason and usually respond better to directions.” Different kinds of drills are held, for example, if an angry parent shows up wanting to remove their child versus someone seen entering the school with a gun.

“We’re required by law to have a fire drill every month, and two earthquake drills a year,” said Vian. “We should be doing safety drills once a month and we’re working towards that. We’re trying to determine what the best safety drill is. Officer Toombs is putting a drill together now.”

Orofino Police Chief, Jeff Wilson, said they partner with the schools in assisting them with the lockdown drills and have, for years, made safety recommendations as to what kinds of access the public should or should not have to the schools. He stated that the schools should have the ability to lock people out, but it’s costly to carry out the safety measures which should be undertaken. He stated, “At the present time there is no way to know for sure if an intruder has entered a school building.”

Wilson said, “Locked doors may give a false sense of security, however, as an intruder can throw a rock or break glass to get inside a building.” Wilson elaborated on the difference between a Code Red versus a Code Yellow Drill Procedure. Without going into details about the procedures themselves, he said the nature of a Code Red drill covers steps students, teachers, and administrators are to take in the event of an intruder being INSIDE the school building. Code Yellow covers steps to be taken if an intruder is OUTSIDE the building.

Wilson said, “There has been a tremendous amount of money that has been put into fire safety – from the cost of the school structures being made out of non-flammable materials, to sprinkler systems." He went on to say, “To my knowledge, over the last 30 years, no student in the United States has ever died due to a school fire. But we’ve lost hundreds of children in schools due to lack of school security. Comparing the amount of money spent for fire safety protection to dollars spent on school security for the safety of students and teachers,” Wilson said, “we haven’t even scratched the surface.”

Mr. Vian stated that the schools’ main job is to provide a safe school environment. “If kids don’t have a safe environment,” he said, “then no learning takes place. There are some things we could do, but it would take a million and a half dollars to make all our schools safe.” When asked what measures he would take if money were no object, Vian said that he would build a new office in front of OHS. On his dream list would be, connecting the shops with the main buildings at both high schools so that the students never had to leave the building. “That would take a few hundred thousand dollars,” Vian said. He would like to see an entry system in place, at the elementary level, where a visitor would step into an entry hall, and have to be ‘buzzed’ through at the second door. “That could be done relatively cheaply,” he said. The very least that could be done at this time would be to provide all schools with doors which may be locked to the outside, but still provide rapid exit from the inside. Mr. Vian stated that, as a private citizen, he is a gun owner himself, but that today’s safety issues in schools do not revolve solely around the use of guns but also stem from poor mental health care programs in this state. Chief Wilson concurred that Idaho has consistently had one of the least effective mental health programs in the U.S. due to lack of funding dollars allotted to that area.

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