If you come to a Rockford Public School with bad intent – or carrying a gun – staff won’t let you in.
Superintendent Michael Shibler and other officials made that crystal clear in explaining the district’s new $11 million security system to building principals and front-office staff. At a recent training session at the Rockford Freshman Center, Shibler told the group that their vigilance, along with new security vestibules, cameras and shatter-proof glass, will add stronger protections for students and staff.
Referring to the on-air murder of two TV journalists in Virginia the day before, Shibler called the measures an unfortunate necessity.
“We in Rockford are being proactive, and we’re anticipating before something happens,” Shibler said. “I don’t like having to do this. It’s the right thing to do because our society is changing.”
Shibler and other officials briefed staff on what procedures to follow with newly installed safety measures. Work is being completed on more-secure entryways at all 13 district schools, as a major piece of a $76 million bond issue approved by voters in 2014.
A key component is enclosed vestibules at main entrances, which require visitors to be admitted to the front office before entering the school. Interior doors will be locked during the school day, except for limited times when students are arriving at or leaving from school.
Whatever inconvenience it may cause for parents or late-arriving students is well worth it, said school security consultant Jason Russell.
“It’s only one time in a million the intent is to do (something) bad,” Russell said. “That’s the person I want you guys to stop.”
New Era Requires New Measures
Rockford is among several local districts where voters have approved funding for increased security, among other needs. Schools have spent millions to help protect students and staff from attacks, such as the 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, and to more closely monitor all visitors.
Along with buzz-in systems requiring office staff to unlock front doors, many schools have built entryway vestibules such as those installed over the summer in Rockford. They enable staffers to ask unknown visitors why they have come, before letting them into the office and then into the school.
“It’s a culture thing,” said Russell, a former Secret Service agent who has protected presidents. “We have to change the idea that we can let our doors fly free and everybody can just come in.”
While that may cause some irritation among parents and students, officials urged staff to err on the side of caution.
“Don’t be concerned if you don’t allow someone in and they get irate,” said Scott Beckman, Rockford’s new director of security. If they become increasingly agitated, he added, “that should be a red flag that you do not let them in.”
If a legitimate visitor is upset at not being admitted, Beckman said later, “We want people to know if you make a mistake, it’s OK. We can deal with it.”
Staffers also were urged not to let visitors “piggy-back” into the building by trailing someone else who has been admitted.
No Guns Allowed, Period
Under no circumstances should someone carrying a gun be allowed in the building, Shibler stressed. Despite state law permitting open-carry in schools by those with concealed weapons permits, letting them into the vestibule is as far as they will go, Shibler vowed.
“Nobody in Rockford is going to open-carry in our buildings. I don’t care what happens,” Shibler said, adding he is willing to be arrested over the issue. “You can’t determine the mental or emotional state of a person open-carrying. Therefore, they’re just not going to come in the building.”
District leaders continue to push for a change in the state law, which bans open carrying in many other public venues, he added. A circuit judge recently ruled a father can carry a pistol into his daughter’s Clio elementary school.
Parents have been supportive of the new measures so far, said Mike Ramm, principal of East Rockford Middle School. So is his office staff. Secretary Stacy Durfee, a mother of three Rockford students, said the precautions give her greater peace of mind.
“I don’t have to worry about it once they’re in their buildings,” Durfee said. “I’m welcoming with open arms all of this.”
As for suspicious visitors, added secretary Jan Hogeboom, “I don’t think any of us will have any problem saying, ‘You’renot coming in.’”