Local schools bolster security

Posted: August 30, 2013

The Winchester Star

WINCHESTER — Area schools are beefing up security as officials plan for safety enhancements to be in place as soon as this year.

Virginia’s legislature and local officials have made it a priority to improve school security and increase staff vigilance after 26 people were killed in December by a gunman who forced his way into Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.

The changes started with the General Assembly.

Beginning with the 2013-14 school year, all public divisions in the state were required to create a threat-assessment team for each school that will intervene with students whose behavior may pose a threat to the safety of staff members or other students.

Each team will include members with expertise in counseling, instruction, school administration and law enforcement.

Divisions also must establish a safety audit committee to include parents, teachers and local law-enforcement who will review the school’s safety and submit plans for improvement.

The Virginia Department of Education has also made available competitive grants, not to exceed $100,000, intended to help school divisions purchase and install security equipment such as intercom systems, security door hardware, cameras, two-way radios, panic systems and scanning devices.

If divisions meet certain criteria, the grants will be awarded in December. A minimum local match of 25 percent is required.

Winchester Public Schools has applied for a $100,000 grant to purchase card readers and 15 exterior and interior cameras at both Quarles and Virginia Avenue Charlotte DeHart elementary schools.

“We’re making these types of [safety] improvements incrementally each year, but this will allow us to do major work at two schools,” said Executive Director Kevin McKew.

Currently, all six of the division’s schools have an exterior card reader, a buzz-in system and security cameras at their front entrances.

The additional requested cameras and card-readers will be added at various other entrances and areas of Quarles and Virginia Avenue — much like they are currently distributed at Daniel Morgan Middle School and Handley High School.

John Kerr and Frederick Douglass elementary schools are not eligible for grant money because security enhancements cannot be “commingled” with other types of school construction work, and both schools are due to be renovated/rebuilt in the coming years.

Any safety enhancements at those schools will have to come from local dollars, McKew said.

The division also has two armed school resource officers who are also in local law enforcement.

Along with physical security enhancements, McKew said the second aspect of keeping schools safe is “creating an environment where things don’t happen at all.” The division is doing this by trying to improve communication between students and staff and creating anti-bullying programs.

“We work equally hard or harder on this [programming],” he said.

In Frederick County, the division is in the process of installing new doors at the main entrances of all 11 of its elementary schools, as well as at the Senseny Road School, which houses the Northwestern Regional Educational Programs (NREP). The new doors, unlike the old ones, will be able to accommodate a buzz-in system that the division is hoping to implement over the next few months in each elementary school.

The buzz-in system will require visitors to ring a buzzer and, via an intercom and camera, identify themselves and the reason they want in the school.

In addition, some schools could require visitors to provide a driver’s license or other form of identification to gain entry.

The division will evaluate the new buzz-in system to determine how it may be expanded to include middle and high schools, which currently are watched over by resource officers.

There is one resource officer at each of the division’s three high schools and two that cover its four middle schools. The officers also provide assistance at the elementary schools, NREP and the Dowell J. Howard Center, as needed.

Frederick County, like Winchester, has applied for a $100,000 grant. If awarded, it would not be enough to cover the entire cost of the new doors and buzz-in systems, and operational funds from the Facilities Services Department will be used to complete the work.

A cost is not yet known for the project.

“We will continue working to enhance school security and we appreciate the many local agencies, including the Frederick County Sheriff’s Office, who work together with us to ensure that our schools are safe and students are protected,” wrote Steve Edwards, coordinator of policy, records management and communications, in an email Thursday.

In Clarke County, security changes are underway — officials are renewing efforts to appropriately badge/ID employees and are working to monitor/lock entrances.

The Clarke County Sheriff’s Office has also increased school resource officer coverage by adding some part-time hours. The division currently has one full-time resource officer.

At a School Board meeting earlier this month, members voted for RRMM, the Roanoke architect firm for the renovation project at the former high school, to do a school safety feasibility study that will look at adding buzz-in entrances, video cameras and double-door entrances at the division’s five schools.

“In Clarke County, we have limited funds for school safety,” said Superintendent Mike Murphy at the meeting.

The School Board will request a supplemental appropriation from the Board of Supervisors for security measures, and as needed, officials will make enhancements a fiscal year 2015 capital request.

According to Murphy, Clarke didn’t apply for any grant money due to limited staffing.

— Contact Rebecca Layne at rlayne@winchesterstar.com