Local News

School Board hears security plans, concerns, ideas

Students and staff walk through the hallway at Keet Gooshi Heen Elementary School in December. (Photo by Ed Ronco/KCAW)

Sitka School District officials say they’ve taken steps to prevent violence but also have plans to respond in case something happens.

During a work session Wednesday night on the subject of school safety, they also said it would be a good idea to have an outside audit on how the district’s five school buildings can be even safer.

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After December’s mass-shooting at a school in Newtown, Conn., National Rifle Association head Wayne LaPierre said “the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”

He advocated armed guards in school buildings and although he didn’t explicitly call for it, part of the national conversation turned to the idea of arming teachers.

Bad idea, says Sitka schools Superintendent Steve Bradshaw.

“We are not going to solve the problem by putting armed teachers in the classroom, I don’t believe,” Bradshaw said. “I think we’re just going to create more problems.”

Bradshaw says he’s a gun owner, and was a hunter. But he also says it’s time for the nation to have a conversation about limiting “assault rifles, and large magazines.”

“A college shooting yesterday, a 15 year old shooting his mom and dad and three siblings yesterday, I don’t know what it’s going to take for us as a nation to wake up,” he said.

But on Wednesday night, in a conference room at Sitka’s School District office, the national conversation quickly gave way to a local one. Principals from all five of Sitka’s buildings discussed how they prepare for emergencies in each of their buildings.

Read earlier stories about school safety, one about talking to children in the wake of a national tragedy, and another about emergency response plans in Sitka.

One of the most visible ways is by holding lock-down drills. Window shades are drawn. Classroom doors are locked. Students are told to keep out of sight.

At Baranof Elementary, which houses kindergarten and first grades, faculty and staff practice how to lock down the building and keep students hidden. But they don’t want to scare the small children who attend school there, so they conduct the drills when students aren’t in the building.

But that could change. Principal Michelle Beach says her staff, and the building’s parent advisory committee, are talking about trying a drill with the children.

“We had at least one parent who started out feeling pretty strongly that she didn’t want her child to be involved in any of those drills. But the more we talked about it, that we would never use words such as ‘We’re practicing in case a shooter comes in the building,’ – of course we would never say anything like that,” Beach said. “We were trying to think of ways that we can portray that to children that doesn’t scare them, but still allows us to practice.”

Blatchley Middle School Principal Ben White said the security situation at Blatchley has been challenged by ongoing construction on the building. Having construction workers in and out of the building’s various doors means others can come and go, too.

“There was a very nice lady walking through the building with her groceries and her dog the other day taking a shortcut from the grocery store,” White said. “So right now, this is a point in time where we’re not very secure because of the construction that’s going on.”

White said a drill at Blatchley went well, but that things need to change, too. When the lockdown was called, some students were locked out of classrooms. But White says those students knew what to do.

“We had kids in closets and they responded very well to it, as far as doing what they should do,” he said. “We found some glitches. We had some doors that lock but don’t latch.”

Phil Burdick, co-principal of Pacific High School, said his building – still under construction – was designed with an open floor plan, which on one level, makes his building what he called “a safety nightmare.”

“On another level,” he said, “it’s potentially the safest building in the school (district), because we’re small enough that we have the luxury to build relationships with not just our kids but also every single parent, and lots of brothers and sisters. That is our first line of defense.”

Burdick says conversations about school safety have happened before, but as budgets shrank, the conversations went away. He said it’s time to renew that resource.

“It’s not a grant,” he said. “It’s time. It’s a decision by the adults of this community to make the safety – both mental and physical and emotional – of our kids our No. 1 priority. And that isn’t just on the schools. It’s also on the parents and it’s also on our mental health agencies. And it’s a huge resource.”

District officials agreed that a lot of progress comes from talking with kids and listening to them, too.

The conversation did not exclusively highlight problems. In fact, most of it dealt with solutions. Some of the big positives? The Sitka police have an officer who regularly visits the school buildings and knows the students and staff. Police and fire officials have plans for responding to schools in a variety of situations. They also talked about responding to fires, bomb scares, earthquakes and tsunami evacuations.

School Board President Lon Garrison said he was interested in the idea of hiring an outside expert to conduct a security assessment of the various buildings. And members of the board, as well as Sitka’s fire and police chiefs, agreed that when it comes to school safety, there are always ways to improve.

Garrison also said members of the public who want to discuss school safety are welcome to give their feedback. Here’s a link to contact information for school board members.

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