A day after 20 children and six adults were shot to death in December at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn., Western Springs District 101 Superintendent Brian Barnhart sent an email to parents asking for suggestions on improving security at local schools.
This summer, entrances at three of the district’s four schools will be renovated to make it more difficult to enter, a project that will cost between $200,000 and $300,000, Barnhart estimated. Security cameras outside the schools soon will be linked to police and dispatch centers, an idea that came from a parent. And the district, like other schools, is considering additional changes as it aims to protect against a tragedy like the one that happened Dec. 14 in Newtown.
Security cameras linked to police, dispatch center
When Barnhart told the school board about a parent’s suggestion to give police access to school security cameras, the reaction was, “That’s a great idea. Let’s pursue it,” Barnhart said.
The district spent about $3,000 to upgrade and rewire the cameras, allowing them to feed to Western Springs police and Village Hall. Barnhart estimates the district will “flip the switch” by the end of the school year. Police and dispatch officers then can login to the schools’ security systems from their office or squad cars. The feed will not be monitored continuously but will be viewable if a threat is suspected.
“If there were an active event or an active shooter of some kind … [the video feed] would give us an advantage responding to that situation,” said Brian Budds, deputy chief of Western Springs police.
Schools in Butler School District 53 in Oak Brook have had a similar setup for at least five years, although it hasn’t been used for an emergency.
“It truly is an incredibly valuable tool, especially when you look at the size of some of these schools,” said Jason Cates, Oak Brook’s deputy police chief. “To have the ability to see inside the schools when you’re preparing to respond, it’s invaluable.”
District 101 in Western Springs has cameras outside its schools but not inside. Several other local school districts, including La Grange District 105 and La Grange Highlands District 106, said they also are looking into linking their cameras to police.
Unlike those schools, Brookfield-La Grange Park District 95 does not have any security cameras at its middle or elementary school.
“We have typically been a very low-incident district,” Superintendent Mark Kuzniewski said.
In addition to a buzzer system for entry to the building, District 95 schools try to have a staff member escort visitors to their room, Kuzniewski said. The district’s Brook Park Elementary School is overseen by La Grange Park police.
“Law enforcement would love to have cameras, but cameras aren’t the only answer,” La Grange Park Police Chief Dan McCollum said. “Not only do you have to have cameras, but you have to have attentive people monitoring those cameras. Our agency feels stronger about people. … It’s the people, the vigilance. I think that there has been a casual nonchalance in a lot of the security areas.”
McCollum and Kuzniewski partnered to bring in national school security expert Kenneth Trump, who gave a presentation to school districts and law-enforcement officials from 12 towns April 25 in La Grange Park.
“We want to talk about arming teachers ... and we still haven’t mastered ‘Good morning, may I help you?’ to a person in your school hallway,” Trump said of many schools’ security policies.
Architectural changes part of security enhancements
Security improvements have been a part of renovations at local districts in recent years, but after the Sandy Hook shootings, many, including District 101, decided changes were needed.
After renovations are complete this summer, two of the district's schools will have two sets of doors that can be locked at their entrances, requiring visitors to be buzzed in twice.
The renovations will include creating a small hallway so students can access the front office without passing the entrance area and relocating the door to a classroom currently accessible from just inside the main doors.
“Almost all of this is post-Sandy Hook,” Barnhart said.
Lyons Township High School is also considering changes to its main entrances. School administrators met with local police this spring and will meet with fire officials in the summer to discuss changes to the school’s main entrances. Currently, one door at each of the school’s main entrances is left unlocked. Upon entering, visitors must present an ID, which is scanned for a background check.
How secure is too secure?
After the Sandy Hook shootings, District 95 Superintendent Kuzniewski said he was criticized for not requiring a sign-in process during a second-graders and grandparents’ sing-a-long event at Brook Park.
“I wasn’t going to have an 80-year-old grandparent stand in line and sign in their name on a piece of paper,” he said. “We have this very difficult task of balancing a safe and secure building for students with making it a warm and inviting place for the community. And when it comes to security, those two things are at odds with one another.”
Note to readers: This is the first installment in a series looking at security issues at local schools. Readers can share their thoughts by sending a letter to the editor to firstname.lastname@example.org