Schools Spend Big to Tighten Security: ‘We Live in a Different World’

Deputy Andy Kozal stands in the new security vestibule at the entrance of Northview High School

Lyza Hockemeyer says she generally feels pretty safe at Northview High School. But when she hears about bomb threats that have been made to other area schools, or incidents like the 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, it worries her.

“You definitely hear about that stuff, and it tells me it’s possible and it could happen,” said Lyza, a senior at Northview High.

So you won’t catch her complaining that Northview students returning from off-campus at lunch have to be allowed in through the school’s new security vestibules. As far as she is concerned, it’s a minor inconvenience compared to the harm it could prevent.

“I absolutely love it,” Lyza said of the system installed this fall in the renovated high school. “I feel safer at school than I ever have.”

Making students and staff safer, against the possibility of an attack they hope will never happen, is a major reason many Kent County schools have installed elaborate – and expensive – new security systems.

Four districts also added security officers this year as further protection against outsider assaults, to monitor misbehavior by students and build positive relationships with them.

With some regret, school officials say greater security is necessary if today’s students are to learn in a relatively safe environment.

“We all wish we weren’t in this position,” said Kent County Sheriff’s Deputy Andy Kozal, a veteran resource officer for Northview Public Schools. “But schools are an extension of the community. (Businesses and churches) are taking similar measures to protect and create a level of safety.”

The New Normal: Districts Fund Stronger Safety Measures

by School News Network staff

At first glance, Sparta Area Schools looks like a tranquil, almost idyllic district: some 2,600 students faithfully attending classes in a small town surrounded by rolling apple orchards.

But even in this rural district in northern Kent County, Superintendent Gordie Nickels is ever alert to the possibility of danger. If the district were to ask voters for a funding increase, safety and security measures would be a top priority, he said.

“You might think this is a quiet little community, but one never knows,” Nickels said. “Unfortunately our world has changed. You can’t take anything for granted any longer.”

That ongoing concern has prompted Sparta and other districts in the Kent ISD to improve security in their buildings, staffing and procedures. Actions range from multi-million dollar bond issues to relatively modest improvements with available resources.

Late last fall Sparta, using general funds, added punch pads to its White Early Childhood Center and the daycare program at Appleview Elementary, requiring parents to punch in a code to enter at pickup or drop-off times. Officials also have applied for a grant to pay for more cameras and other security upgrades, and are working with village police on staffing a school liaison officer, Nickels said.

Like other districts, Sparta has emergency response plans and safety teams, conducts lockdown drills, and promotes the new “OK2SAY” statewide hotline for students to provide tips on possible violence at school.

Here are improvements some other districts have made or plan to make.

Caledonia

Voters in May approved a $41 million bond issue that included $2.6 million for security upgrades. Five schools will get entryway vestibules over the next three years: the Early Childhood Center, Emmons Lake Elementary, Kraft Meadows and Duncan Lake middle schools, and Caledonia High School. All other buildings have single entry points leading to a secure holding area or lobby, funded by a 2007 bond.

Comstock Park  

A 2011 bond issue paid for either new or improved security entrances in all schools. More cameras were installed in the high school, in all buses and in the parking lot and athletic field, along with new exterior lighting.

East Grand Rapids

Voters in May approved a $30.9 million bond issue that includes $6 million in safety and security measures. They include updated front entrances, new security cameras, and new entrances at Wealthy and Breton Downs elementary schools.

Godwin Heights

Voters will go to the polls May 5 to decide a $13 million bond request for increased safety and security measures, improved facilities and technology upgrades.

Northview

A $6.67 million building and site fund renewal approved in May will pay for more secure building entrances, among other projects.

Rockford

A $76.1 million bond issue approved in May includes $11 million for enhanced safety and security measures, including entryway vestibules and buzz-in systems in all buildings.

Thornapple Kellogg

District voters approved a $6 million bond issue that includes $242,000 for classroom door-locking mechanisms, and entry vestibules that will be built over the summer.

CONNECT

Voters Approve Funding Requests in Seven Districts

Safety Measures Cost Big Bucks

The cost of safety doesn’t come cheaply. Rockford voters last May passed a $76.1 million bond issue for school improvements, including $11 million for security upgrades. Superintendent Michael Shibler said he doesn’t like having to spend that kind of money but a changed society requires it.

“We live in a different world, where people are willing to go further than ever before to make threats or carry them out,” Shibler said. “You’ve got to take it seriously. We have to be prepared and we have to be proactive.”

Rockford’s safety has been in the spotlight due to a rash of bomb threats that began in October. Caledonia and Godfrey-Lee also received threats in November, and Godfrey-Lee and Kentwood recently received threats by mail. None of the threats resulted in actual incidents.

School safety was a prime concern in tax measures approved in May by voters in several districts (see related story). Funds earmarked for safety and security included $2.6 million in Caledonia and $6 million in East Grand Rapids. At Thornapple Kellogg, officials spent $84,000 for steel devices called The Boot to securely close doors. And Godwin Heights will ask voters this May for a $13 million bond issue that includes security upgrades.

“We have to be prepared and we have to be proactive.”
Rockford Superintendent Michael Shibler

Buzz-in systems are a key component of new security systems. They prevent visitors from entering schools until they’ve identified themselves, then are buzzed in by front office staff. Some schools are also adding enclosed entryway vestibules, which force visitors into the office before they can enter the hallways.

Such measures don’t guarantee a killer can’t get in  — Sandy Hook Elementary had a locked buzz-in door but Adam Lanza shot his way in. Still, officials say they can prevent some deadly incidents and provide staff more time to react.

“It gives me and it certainly gives parents and staff peace of mind, that we are doing everything we possibly can to create a safe and orderly environment,” Shibler said. “If that prevents someone from creating havoc just one time, it’s well worth it.”

Drilling for Disaster  

In Rockford, buzz-in systems were installed in all schools over the summer, and construction of vestibules will begin in April. Entry ways and windows will be covered with a film to prevent glass from shattering under force.

In Northview, vestibules were added to the front and two rear entrances of the high school, at a cost of about $417,600, as part of a $38 million renovation. Students and visitors must be buzzed in and cleared by office staff before entering the building.

“I feel safer at school than I ever have.” – Lyza Hockemeyer, Northview High School student

The district has spent about $186,000 on other security measures, such as card readers allowing teachers to enter the building, motion sensors and dozens of cameras. Other features were built with safety in mind, such as low student lockers allowing for long sight lines. Different parts of the building can be locked down if necessary.

<pdir=”ltr”>That’s just the physical stuff. Teachers and students run through “shelter in place” lockdown drills, huddling in classrooms with the lights off, and practice what to do in emergencies if they’re in the halls or at lunch. Their awareness and alertness is one of a school’s best security measures, officials say.

“What we’ve learned from all the horrible incidents is you can’t plan for a specific event,” said Brent Dickerson, dean of students. “We teach people to be responsive, to be aware of their surroundings, and to react accordingly.”

Added Kozal, the sheriff’s deputy, “We want to empower people to use their senses to make good decisions.”

Bomb Threats Shake Up Schools

Kozal is in his eighth year at Northview, one of six Kent ISD school districts employing Kent County sheriff’s deputies as school resource officers. Forest Hills has long had an officer, and Byron Center, Kenowa Hills, Kent City and Lowell added officers this year under a joint funding agreement with the sheriff’s department.

Much of the deputies’ work is getting to know students, staff and parents, and “building a safer community through those relationships,” Kozal said.

A district-wide security team works with county emergency officials, said Dickerson, adding, “Security is the entire community’s responsibility. They are the eyes and ears around every school in the district.”

Rockford employs eight security staff, most of them retired law enforcement officers. The district beefed up its security team following the 1998 school shootings in Arkansas, when two middle school students killed four classmates and a teacher. Shibler said the incident prompted him to hire a dozen security staff, later trimmed to eight due to budget cuts.

“That was when I first became aware that there’s something happening here in this society that isn’t good,” Shibler said, adding the district became proactive to protect its schools.

Security concerns received new focus with a series of bomb threats beginning in the fall. Rockford High School students spent the afternoon of Jan. 15 in the gym as police and bomb-sniffing dogs searched the school.

Shibler said he’s been working with local and state police and the FBI to trace the threats made by phone, email and Skype. The district recently increased its reward to $10,000 for information leading to an arrest of those responsible.

“We want to empower people to use their senses to make good decisions.” Deputy Andy Kozal, Northview resource officer

Besides taking greater security precautions, officials are addressing the emotional needs of students and parents. High school students recently were invited to discuss their concerns with classmates trained as peer listeners, and a video by Shibler explaining the district’s response was sent to all students, staff and parents.

“I want you to know your schools are safe,” Shibler says on the video.

Lyza Hockemeyer said she believes Northview High School is safe, even though the threats at Rockford and other schools concern her. As a student representative on the school board, she knows the district’s emergency procedures. And she understands why she and fellow students sometimes have to huddle in a corner of the classroom during lockdown drills.

However, Lyza added, “The fact that we have to do it is kind of creepy.”

CONNECT

Letter about security concerns from Northview Superintendent Mike Paskewicz

Video by Rockford Superintendent Michael Shibler addressing bomb threats

“The Boot” locks down doors in Thornapple Kellogg schools

Charles Honey
Charles Honey is a freelance writer and former columnist for The Grand Rapids Press/ MLive.com. As a reporter for The Press from 1985 to 2009, his beats included Grand Rapids Public Schools, local colleges and education issues. Honey served as editor of The Press’ award-winning Religion section for 15 years. His freelance articles have appeared in Christianity Today magazine, Religion News Service and the Aquinas College alumni magazine. Read Charles' full bio.

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