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December 23, 2012
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Schools, law enforcement look at safety

In the wake of the recent shooting at a Connecticut elementary school, communities across the nation are looking at school security.And Carson City is no exception. “Safety is not just one thing,” said Richard Stokes, superintendent of the Carson City School District. “It touches every aspect of what we do. Everything from transportation to how to monitor student activity in the buildings.”While much of the recent focus has been on intruders, Stokes said, the district works to protect students from any harm.“When parents drop off children to our schools, the schools are essentially expected to act ‘in loco parentis,' Latin meaning that the district is acting as the parent of these children. We take that responsibility very seriously.”However, one board member doesn't think the district is taking it seriously enough. BuildingsBarbara Myers said she was disappointed the district hadn't installed a lock system on all classroom doors that would be opened by key cards. She said it was initially promised in the 2010 bond initiative but hadn't come to fruition. Mike Mitchell, the owner's representative that oversaw the bond projects, said it was never a consideration in 2010. He said a key-card lock system was dismissed in 2000 after a test system was installed at the Gleason Complex, a former elementary school where professional development services are now housed. At $2,400 per door, with more than 3,000 doors in the district, it was too expensive, he said. Batteries had to be replaced almost weekly and glitches were hard to predict. “We investigated it. Nobody liked it,” Mitchell said. “It was cumbersome and not user-friendly. It was not the way to go.”Instead, as part of the 2000 bond, intruder locks were installed on classroom doors, allowing teachers to lock the doors from the inside rather then stepping out into the hall to lock them. “We felt it was the environment that was safest for our kids and our teachers in the school,” Mitchell said. “It is now the industry standard.”Also beginning with the 2000 bond, officials began looking into school entrances. All exterior doors were locked, allowing a single point of entry into each school and visitors started being required to check in at the front office. As schools have been remodeled since then, front offices have been shifted adjacent to the entrances. At Carson Middle, Eagle Valley Middle and Empire Elementary schools, visitors must pass through a single vestibule before being buzzed into the main corridor by office staff. A similar entryway will be in effect at Seeliger Elementary School when students return from Christmas break and at Mark Twain and Fremont elementary schools in the fall. Stokes said more secure entrances are being examined at other schools as well, where it may be more difficult because of their original construction.The planWhile more secure buildings may be a deterrent, Stokes said, there also must be a plan in place if an intruder were to gain access to a school. The district's Crisis Response Plan outlines what teacher, administrators, staff and students should do in the case of an emergency. While the plan includes locking down inside the classrooms, specific details are not made public. “We look at it as a secure document,” Stokes said. “We don't want the bad guy out there to use our plan against us.”He said experts were called in to formulate the plan.“These are people who have been trained in law enforcement and military tactics that have given us insight,” he said. “It is not haphazard. It is using current best practices.”Myers, a retired teacher and speech pathologist in the schools, pointed out that groups of students are often in hallways or other areas for occupational therapy or remediation, leaving them susceptible. “They're sitting ducks,” she said. Stokes said that is built into the plan.“Our schools depend on people assisting children,” he said. “At any given time, there's going to be people outside of classrooms. We tell our students and staff to get to the nearest classroom possible. Those are the drills we practice.”Law enforcementAfter last Friday's shooting in Connecticut, Carson City Sheriff Ken Furlong called Stokes at home on Saturday to tell him the department would be sending extra patrols to the schools Monday.“We're absolutely interconnected,” Furlong said. “We work very closely together and keep in good communication.”He said the sheriff's deputies increased their presence at schools last week and will continue to do so after the break. He said troopers from the Nevada Highway Patrol volunteered their service as well. “That's Carson City,” Furlong said. “We all work together. We all have children, we all have grandchildren in the schools. We all care about the safety.”He said school officials are quick to notify law enforcement of any threats made to schools or rumors of threats passed on by the students. “They put the children's welfare first,” Furlong said. “I find that very comforting.”The sheriff's department assigns one deputy to the schools and the district has two of its own security officers. Mostly, they work at the high school but make rounds to the other schools, which they also monitor through video surveillance.Furlong said increasing a police presence in schools is not the ideal solution.“There are limits to what we can do,” he said. “We can't afford to put officers in every school in every town across America. Nor would that achieve our goal.”He said his aim in the next year is to create a formal network with mental health services to detect potential threats before they happen. “We have psychologists assigned to the jail. We have mental health courts,” he said. “We have services in this community, but what we fail to do sometimes is get those services and the patients effectively linked.”Much like the methamphetamine campaign in the past decade shed light on addiction in the community, Furlong said he want to bring mental illness out of the darkness. He said families often try to deal with the illness themselves out of love or shame. “We need to create a sense that there are people out here who can and are willing to help,” he said. “Families are critical to that.”He said funding and programs need to be targeted at creating a partnership. “What you'll see us do here in Carson City is create a systematic link between the health department and the sheriff's department to identify cases and create case management,” he said.By creating a safer community, schools also will be safer.“It takes a vigilant community,” Furlong said.Choosing lifeAs news has continued to surface during the past week from the Dec. 14 shooting that left 27 students, teachers and administrators dead at Sandy Hook Elementary School, stories of heroism have emerged. Teachers and administrators sacrificed themselves to save the lives of their students. Stokes knows his own employees can't help but ask themselves what they would do in a similar situation. He wishes they didn't have to think about it.“In my opinion, they're all heroes,” he said. “It's a tough job they do, and they do stand up for up for their students, every day.”He said the district will continue to look for ways to make campuses safer, and continue to seek guidance from experts, parents and staff. But, he said, there has to be a balance. “Our schools are public buildings,” he said. “We serve the public. Through our strategic plan, we invite parents and business owners and members of the public to be partners in educating our children.”And the true focus, he said, must always remain on education. “When are you going to be so afraid you are paralyzed to manage your affairs?” he asked. “I don't think we hide up in our airtight buildings.“We continue to live.”

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The Nevada Appeal Updated Dec 25, 2012 12:32AM Published Dec 23, 2012 02:42AM Copyright 2012 The Nevada Appeal. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.