Rock Hill schools make extensive security changes

rsouthmayd@heraldonline.comSeptember 28, 2013 

Principal Norris Williams shows the new safety vestibule at Dutchman Creek Middle School in Rock Hill.

ANDY BURRISS — aburriss@heraldonline.com Buy Photo

  • Eye on safety

    “I love my job,” said Kevin Wren, who serves as the director of security, safety and environmental management for Rock Hill schools. “I hate the fact that I’m here.”

    In an ideal world, there wouldn’t be a need for safety plans or lockdown drills, he said.

    But Wren said the only reason the public doesn’t know how many incidents actually occur every day is because people like him and those the district has trained are doing their jobs.

    “What happens in the community comes into the building every day,” Wren said.

    Incidents happen in and around public schools on a daily basis, he said.

    And an “incident” isn’t just an angry person with weapons. It’s the burglary suspect on the run in the area that forces a school to call for a “preventive lockdown.” It’s the irate parent who wants to yell at his or her child’s teacher or administrator in the middle of the day.

    These and countless other scenarios fall under the purview of safety and security, which is something not all members of the public realize, Vaughan said.

    “Our goal is to make sure that our students and staff come to school safely and leave safely every day,” he said.

    Associate Superintendent Anthony Cox said some people might be unhappy with funds being spent on extensive safety planning and management. But schools today cover many more duties than just providing traditional classroom education to students, he said.

    “You’ve got to spend the appropriate amount (on safety),” Cox said. “I don’t think it’s a bad investment.”

Many Rock Hill school buildings and policies look very different than they did this time last year.

Nearly eight months after the school board approved spending $2.3 million to improve school safety, almost every recommendation for improvement made by Safe Haven International, a security consulting firm, has been acted on or is in the works.

Most apparent among the changes are the lobbies of nearly every school building in the district, said Brian Vaughan, director of facilities services. Instead of just being able to walk in the front doors and wander the halls, every visitor is stopped and contained within a safety vestibule, which, in most cases, looks like a large, transparent room. A visitor can’t get any further than the vestibule without a staff member granting him or her access, Vaughan said.

“Besides the obvious of limiting access to the public, it creates an awareness of exactly who is in the building,” Vaughan said. “It gives our staff ... a sense of being a little more of a gatekeeper.”

Front office personnel won’t be responsible for letting everyone into the building, though, after another round of improvements are made at all schools, Vaughan said. Teachers, staff and administrators would be granted security card access to their buildings. They could be admitted by scanning their identification cards on certain doors.

These cards could be disabled immediately if lost, so a stolen card would no longer work on a school’s door. The first phase of these systems should be up and operational at all schools by the end of January, Vaughan said.

For now, students will not be granted card access.

Other physical improvements for safety across the district include adding more exterior lighting at school buildings, such as Sullivan Middle School, and improving traffic patterns on campus, such as at Northside School of the Arts, Vaughan said.

Each school is also seeing a change in its parking lots. Signs designating administration and other special personnel parking are being removed so their cars can’t be easily targeted.

After installing the access control system, Vaughan said there are no plans for any more major security projects, just school-by-school changes, as needed. These could include additional traffic adjustments, small structural alterations and more “strategic fencing” to keep people from walking across school property, he said.

New plan of action

The Rock Hill school district also has altered the structure of its emergency and risk management administration. The district hired Kevin Wren, who serves as the director of security, safety and environmental management, a position similar to the one he held in Charleston County schools. Before that, he was in law enforcement.

Principals, teachers and administrators go to college to learn how to teach and manage a school district, but few receive formal training in crisis management, Wren said. So to ask them to create and implement effective emergency management plans is unreasonable.

“We’ve gone from one safety plan to multiple levels of safety plan,” he said of the district’s new approach.

This year, the emergency plan has been broken down by level, so each staff member receives training that is specific to his or her role in the building.

The aim is to allow everyone to better manage any emergency, the main types of which are referred to as the “Safe Seven” and include fire drills and emergency lockdowns.

Front office personnel are being trained to serve their gatekeeper functions and decide who gets access to the school. These people can put a school on lockdown in just a few seconds, Wren said.

Through the training, district administrators get feedback, said Associate Superintendent Anthony Cox. In fact, district policy changes were suggested by people in these gatekeeper positions, he said.

One new rule adjusts and defines the district’s visitor policy, specifically what identification is required and who will be allowed in the school. The rule was approved at Monday’s school board meeting.

A second change makes considerable additions to the student dismissal policy, which was previously short and vague. The school board had a second reading of the policy at the meeting.

Cox said some front office staff members were uncomfortable at first with the idea of denying parents and visitors access, especially if those people become angry.

“People don’t want to be impolite,” Cox said.

But after discussion, the light bulbs began to come on for many of them, Cox said, as they realized their job was to protect children and staff in their buildings.

Some details secret

Training includes videos Safe Haven made. Employees were filmed in schools, in accordance with district safety procedures, so the videos are as accurate as possible.

Wren said he hopes to show certain portions of the videos at school meetings so parents can learn about emergency procedures such as “family reunification,” the process of getting students back to their families after an evacuation off school grounds.

The locations of parent reunification sites aren’t made public until absolutely necessary for security reasons, Wren said, but each school does have two possible sites.

For security reasons, other aspects of each school’s safety plans aren’t available to the public either, such as the steps of a lockdown procedure or signals for students in an emergency.

Students are receiving training through drills, Wren said. The state mandates fire drills once a month, but other types of drills, such as emergency lockdowns and reverse evacuations, are performed at the discretion of each district.

“The more we drill, the more issues we find, and the more we can address those issues,” Wren said of the district’s approach. “It’s really all about preparedness.”

Other than the mandated monthly fire drills, Wren and Cox said there is very little state oversight when it comes to emergency preparedness, although it has increased since the massacre last December that killed 26 students and staff members at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut.

This year, schools in South Carolina had to submit a safety checklist to the state before receiving certain funding, and the checklist was more thorough than in the past.

There isn’t a state requirement to fund a position like Wren’s. Some districts, such as Charleston County, have large emergency planning staffs, while others don’t have the resources for anyone in such a role.

“Just having (Wren) on our staff elevated our preparedness profile and the overall safety of our district,” Cox said.

Rachel Southmayd •  803-329-4072

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