Chester working to improve school security

jmcfadden@heraldonline.comNovember 16, 2013 

— For more than a year, the Chester County School District has worked to enhance security, installing more than 600 new cameras throughout the schools, revamping district-wide safety plans and performing frequent emergency drills.

School officials say an incursion earlier this year when plain-clothes Chester County Sheriff’s deputies managed to enter 12 of the county’s 13 schools unchallenged only served to confirm weaknesses school administrators already planned to address.

Several months after the undercover action, Sheriff Alex Underwood requested funding for seven new school resource officers; county supervisors denied the request. Currently, four officers cover 13 schools in a county of about 5,400 students.

None of the county’s departments received added personnel this year, although employees were given a 3 percent raise after going without a pay increase for about six years. While the school district agreed to foot half the bill for new school resource officers, County Supervisor Carlisle Roddey said earlier this year that the schools have “got more money than we’ve got.”

School enhancements started in May after the school board allocated $800,000 to fund cameras to cover the perimeter and interior of each school, and doors that require visitors to be buzzed in, Superintendent Agnes Slayman said.

Before, the schools had some cameras, but they were not prevalent, she said.

Administrators at each school will soon be able to remotely access security cameras from district-issued iPads and iPhones. The cameras’ resolution is so sharp, Slayman said, that users can read the license plates of cars in the parking lots.

“You can zoom in and identify folks,” she said.

Help from technology

The remote access comes in handy for administrators such as Chester Middle School Principal Cedrick Tidwell.

“At 2 a.m., when I get a burglar alarm, it comes to me,” he said.

He can look inside the schools and give law enforcement information before arriving at the McCandless Road campus.

“If there’s a looming danger, I can see it and curtail any looming danger,” he said.

Visitors at Chester Middle School, with its 630 students, have to ring a bell before they’re buzzed in. They pass through the front doors and take an immediate right to the office, where they sign in at a computerized visitor’s log that takes their picture.

Tidwell said he does not want to fortify the school so much that it’s not welcoming.

“We do have visitors; our schools are open places,” he said. “We want people to come … if they have legitimate business.”

Each of the district’s classrooms is equipped with wireless IP phones that let teachers call parents and parents teachers, Slayman said.

Select administrators are given “smart keys.” The keys, which collect data showing when a user opens a door, what doors a user has opened and how often someone has used the key, are password-protected. If a user fails to enter his or her password correctly 10 times, all the data is wiped clean, said Michael Grant, the district’s information technology director.

In 2009, the district got a Readiness and Emergency Management for Schools grant helping it create a comprehensive emergency plan.

Each emergency plan is tailored to each school’s needs, said Jeff Gardner, associate superintendent for Chester County schools.

The plans are revamped each year by July 1, although a district safety team updates them during quarterly meetings and more frequently if needed, he said.

Gardner underwent basic training to learn how to respond to emergency situations, organize a crisis scene and prevent a situation from getting out of control until first responders arrive.

Principals such as Tidwell store locked “go boxes” in their offices that contain building plans, student information, rosters, roll calls and other essentials in case of an evacuation.

A call-out system let principals send messages to parents in an emergency instead of tying up school district phone lines.

Adult leadership important

Tidwell and Slayman both say Chester administrators value their students’ lives above their own.

When parents “put a child on a bus or bring a child to our front doors, (teachers) take that child from their parent and they become their own,” Slayman said. Teachers, staff members, secretaries and administrators, she said, “are the first ones there” when there’s an emergency.

But Underwood says law enforcement officers are the ones who go in and remove the threat. School resource officers have attended conferences and deputies have had training, preparing them for a day deputies say is a matter of “if,” not “when.”

Since Adam Lanza killed 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., last December, a teacher has been killed and two students shot at a Sparks, Nev., middle school earlier this month. In Atlanta, Ga., a middle school bookkeeper managed to talk down a shooter who stormed into the school in August.

“Those two instances are not the norm,” but examples of the “awesome” human instinct and the body’s way of keeping people alive in crises, said Dr. Sonayia Shepherd, schools safety analyst with Safe Havens, an international school safety consulting firm.

“They go … against most safety experts’ opinions of what should be done, but they worked,” she said. “That’s an example of the human condition – just rising to the occasion and really helping people survive.”

School safety experts, she said, “teach you to lockdown and hide.”

“You should train students to listen to the teachers” in a crisis, she said. “They’re given the authority to take care of these students.”

Lt. Dwayne Robinson agrees. He’s attended several school safety conferences in which instructors stress that students must listen to staff members’ instructions, whether they be secretaries, custodians, teachers or school resource officers.

“Less is more” in those kind of situations, he said, adding that students should not know every detail of every evacuation and emergency plan since students have more frequently opened fire in a school.

Earlier this month, all 13 Chester schools underwent a practice district-wide lockdown. A day earlier, school resource officers and school administrators spoke with teachers, instructing them on what steps they should take. During the lockdown, administrators monitored student and teacher performance. Slayman said the next round of drills will likely be unannounced to ensure “what we see during an announced drill is what we see during an unannounced one.”

“We’re headed in the right direction,” Robinson said. “We’re a whole lot farther this year than (in) the three years I’ve been an SRO.”

Preparing to be calm

Crucial to preparation, Slayman said, is making sure “adults understand the drills.”

“You always know the kids are going to look at that adult they have an emotional tie to,” she said.

“Could I sit here and say with 100 percent that in every situation, we will do everything to the letter? No,” Slayman said.

When situations arise, “people react differently,” she said. “You try to do the best you can to plan for the unpredictable.”

Slayman said she does not want to create a culture of paranoia among students, parents and teachers. She said, “You walk a fine line between giving assurance or creating panic.”

“Teachers and parents call us all the time (asking), ‘Will lockdowns frighten the kids?’ ‘Will evacuations frighten the kids?’” Shepherd said. “Children and adults are typically frightened when they don’t know what to do. The more drills you do, the less frightened they are.

“You usually don’t see kids scared and crying in a fire drill,” she said. “They become scared when they don’t know what to do.”

Jonathan McFadden •  803-329-4082

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