School security is a rapidly growing business nationwide.
According to CNNMoney, school districts are increasing their investments in video surveillance, entry control systems, training and security forces.
Colorado Springs school districts are no exception. Although local districts don’t disclose the specifics of security measures such as placement of cameras, they want parents to know that they are taking all possible steps to keep students safe when classes resume next month.
“We hear a lot about shootings, but school is still one of the safest places kids can be,” said James Hastings, commander of security operations at Colorado Springs School District 11.
“Shootings are a major concern with any district, and we all have protocols in place — for example, threat assessments on kids should it come forward that their behavior could result in shooting or serious assaults,” Hastings said. “The other problems we face are the same as in the community: narcotics, parental issues such as custody, and dealing with upset people. At the high school level, probably the most reports we see are narcotics.”
In its 2016-2017 budget, the district allocated $2.5 million for security programs, not including vehicle maintenance, alarm installation and maintenance, and burglar and fire alarms.
Hastings leads a security staff of 62 — larger than the police departments in many towns. The force includes a patrol division, supervisors, an investigator, dispatchers and support staff.
Some 46 campus security officers are deployed to the district’s high schools and middle schools. About half are former law enforcement officers or have military police backgrounds, Hastings said, and all are trained in crisis prevention, first aid, CPR, school law and juvenile law.
The campus security officers help enforce the district’s student conduct and discipline code, assist students in dealing with conflict and instances of sexual or racial harassment, and monitor campuses for unauthorized visitors and signs of danger or criminal activity.
Ten uniformed district security officers are police-academy trained and carry firearms. These officers patrol grounds and buildings, respond to burglar alarms, enforce district policies and respond to calls for service primarily at the elementary schools.
In addition to the district’s security staff, school resource officers, who are sworn officers, are assigned to each of the district’s five high schools. They perform community policing and criminal investigations in cooperation with the district’s security officers and staff.
“We have good partnerships with the Colorado Springs Police Department and the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office,” Hastings said.
All of the district’s elementary and middle schools have video intercom systems, and visitors are buzzed in the front door and directed to the front office, where they are issued a visitor pass.
The same basic process is employed at the high schools, except that campus security officers are posted at the front doors and visitors are signed in and issued passes there, Hastings said.
The district checks the effectiveness of the access control system by testing it each year at an unannounced time.
During Operation Security, sheriff’s deputies in plain clothes go to each school and try to gain access and bypass the security system.
“If they manage to get in, they let the principal know,” Hastings said. “That’s really helped us make people more vigilant and aware.”
Each district school has a crisis plan that covers everything from natural disasters to hazardous materials.
“We have a pretty rigorous drill plan at each school,” Hastings said. “We get out as we can and watch those drills to make any improvements. We have security coordinators who visit the schools regularly to address concerns, answer questions and help with drills and other activities.”
The coordinators also monitor gang and hate group trends, provide gang intervention and investigate crimes on district property. The security department helps train district staff in bullying prevention, dealing with difficult adolescents, threat assessment and violence prevention.
The district has a zero-tolerance policy for gang activity, weapons and drugs or alcohol. A canine team deploys to randomly selected schools throughout the year to detect drugs and alcohol. When violations are found, school officials are obligated to take disciplinary action that may include expulsion.
This year, the district has adopted the Standard Response Protocol developed by the “I Love U Guys” Foundation, an organization that focuses on school safety. The protocol specifies actions that should be taken under defined circumstances that require schools to lockout, lockdown, evacuate or shelter.
“We no longer use ‘shelter in place,’” Hastings said. “It’s now called lockdown, which means something has happened inside the school. Lockout (which used to be called lockdown) means something has happened in the neighborhood of the school.”
D11’s security department is the largest in the county in terms of employees, but smaller districts also have their own security personnel.
Like D11, Harrison School District 2 has its own security force and does not use private security firms.
“Having a security staff in schools can build better rapport with the principals, staff members and kids than a different individual each day,” Security Coordinator John Taylor said. “We work as a team.”
The district deploys three security officers at each of its two high schools and two at each of the four middle schools.
“This year, we are hiring another school resource officer; we now have three,” Taylor said.
The district installed security station desks at the high schools last year; visitors must be buzzed in at the front doors. The front-end assistants use a scanning program called Raptor, to check IDs against lists of registered sex offenders. The program also spots people who have been identified previously as troublemakers.
“We had 60 security cameras five years ago,” Taylor said “Now we have 270 cameras in the district.”
District 2 has received a grant to assist in further securing entryways at the elementary schools, Taylor said. The project will add dividers that will eliminate direct access to the schools even after visitors have been cleared by the front-end assistants and steer them to the school office.
Good school security depends on teamwork, Taylor said.
“You’ve got to work at it to keep kids safe and train people what to do,” he said. Since 2013, his department has conducted more than 120 training sessions with teachers, secretaries and front-end personnel so that all understand their jobs.
However, “it all starts with good students,” he said.
The district encourages students to report concerns or threats through Safe2Tell, an organization that was formed after the Columbine High School shooting on April 20, 1999.
“Research shows that in 81 percent of violent incidents in U.S. schools, someone other than the attacker knew it was going to happen but failed to report it,” the organization’s website states. The information typically goes unreported because of fear that creates a code of silence.
Safe2Tell Colorado developed a statewide, anonymous reporting tool available 24 hours a day to accept reports from students or concerned adults about situations from potential suicides to bringing weapons to school.
“The program gives tips to the State Patrol and contacts the local jurisdiction, school district security, the principal and police,” Taylor said. “By later that day, we are all working together to solve that problem.”
Last year, Lewis-Palmer School District 38 hired an El Paso County Sheriff’s deputy as chief of security and now has a school resource officer at each of its two high schools.
“We are hiring additional security personnel this fall,” District 38 Media and Community Relations Department head Julie Stephen said, adding another school resource officer will help at the elementary schools.
The district is tightening entry security at all schools this year. The school board approved $1 million for additional training, personnel and other security measures.
“At our high schools, we are building entry vestibules,” Stephen said. “Some of our elementaries are being retrofitted with places for people to check in.”
The district also prepares and trains staff from building managers to teachers to be alert for security issues and know how to respond.
As in the other local districts, identifying potential issues before they erupt is key to District 38’s security program.
“When we see a kid might be in trouble, we do a risk assessment,” Stephen said. “Gangs aren’t a big issue in our district, but we definitely pay attention to how people are behaving. Our counselors, social workers and teachers are building relationships so they know when a kid is behaving outside of what’s normal for them.”
Stephen said the school’s curriculum provides opportunities to talk with students about “how we treat each other online, face to face and in groups.”
The district also strives to provide students with multiple avenues of connection, which can make a big difference in the school experience.
“That’s why we have clubs, athletics and more extracurricular opportunities than ever,” Stephen said.
“I have a friend with a daughter at one of the high schools,” she said. “I asked her, ‘How is your daughter feeling about being at school right now?’ “ Her daughter said, ‘I feel so safe; I’m connected in so many ways.’” n CSBJ