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Area school officials evaluate security in wake of Connecticut shootings

By PAMELA GOULD

AND AMY UMBLE

Spotsylvania County Deputy Andy Frank visits with Zechaniah Smith (left) and Emari Parker (right) from Battlefield Elementary School during lunch on Thursday morning. / Photo by Suzanne Carr Rossi

Across the Fredericksburg region, city and county officials are evaluating school security needs—and what they can afford—in the wake of the tragedy in Connecticut.

Most local leaders would love to place an armed law enforcement officer at every school, but realize that’s costly—in the neighborhood of $70,000 per year for every school resource officer.

They also realize a police officer isn’t the magical solution to prevent another tragedy like the Dec. 14 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn.

“It’s not like there’s just one thing; if we just fix this, it’s all solved. It’s not that simple,” said Fredericksburg Police Chief David Nye.

“Columbine had a school resource officer,” he said, referring to the Colorado high school where two students killed one teacher and 12 classmates before taking their own lives in 1999.

“It’s a complex issue.”

Nye’s staff has begun preliminary meetings with city school officials about security in the wake of the Newtown shootings that left 20 children and six staff members dead. But he said he wants to carefully analyze previous school shootings before recommending changes.

And with austere budgets, local officials want to make sure every dollar is used effectively.

The school safety discussion shouldn’t just center on school resource officers and secure entrances, Stafford County Sheriff Charles Jett said.

“If you do a lot of homework up front, you may not have to worry about responding to a crisis because you’ve pre-empted it,” he said, adding that many Stafford schools have crisis teams trained to recognize the signs of a potential shooter.

Teachers and staff members on the teams know to take their concerns to school psychologists and social workers or the Sheriff’s Office.

Spotsylvania County Administrator Doug Barnes said a joint task force he co-chairs with Spotsylvania Sheriff Roger Harris and Schools

Superintendent Scott Baker is focused on being proactive.

Like Jett, they want to pre-empt a problem, preferably blocking someone bent on harm from entering a building.

Once trouble gets inside, staff and first responders must shift to reaction mode and the equation changes, he said.

Barnes said he, Baker and Harris would love to hire 17 new deputies so all county schools would have a full-time school resource officer (SRO). But, with a $76,000 price tag for salary and benefits alone, he doesn’t see that as realistic for fiscal 2014.

Barnes hopes the state will provide funds toward that goal but doesn’t anticipate total funding. The county already faces a revenue shortfall as he prepares the upcoming budget for the county Board of Supervisors on Feb. 26.

“This is a very emotional, very hard issue,” Barnes said. “If it’s affordable, I agree, let’s put SROs in all of the schools.”

MINOR CHANGES STARTED

The Spotsylvania task force, formed in the days following the Dec. 14 shooting, has already implemented some changes and outlined additional short- and long-term plans. But it’s unclear what the costs will be, Baker said.

With current funds, they have already increased police presence at the elementary schools, provided elementary schools with radios for instant emergency communication and positioned school staff for better monitoring of school buildings and grounds.

But securing some schools will likely require more money.

Among the changes being considered are reconfiguring the entrance of Massaponax and Spotsylvania high schools to force visitors to pass through the main office before reaching a school hallway. Older elementary schools need revision so office staff can see the front door.

Stafford has been revising school entrances since 2006, when a consulting firm reviewed its safety measures. The division has finished reconfiguring all schools except Mountain View and Stafford high schools and Garrisonville Elementary, schools spokeswoman Valerie Cottingim said.

Most schools were altered so that visitors must enter through the main office but at Colonial Forge High School they must be buzzed into the school.

Stafford is evaluating whether that system should be used in all schools, Cottongim said.

Spotsylvania is also considering implementing a buzz-in system along with security cameras and possibly security badges, but such options are costly.

Culpeper County already has security cameras in some schools and increased the number over the past three years, Superintendent Bobbi Johnson said. The division also increased the number of radios in school administrators’ hands.

Culpeper’s superintendent and Sheriff Scott Jenkins met recently and have immediate plans to code school hallways and classrooms for easy identification in the midst of a crisis, Johnson said.

Besides having five deputies spread across the county’s 10 schools, the Culpeper school division has its own staff of security officers at the middle and high schools.

Jenkins said he’ll be asking for five more deputies in the next budget at a cost of $284,000 in salary and benefits.

Johnson is considering adding security vestibules at some school entrances to control access, but the cost is estimated between $50,000 and $75,000.

DETAILS NOT UNVEILED

Fredericksburg schools have safety ideas they want to present to the city police and council, Director of Operations Bob Burch said. He declined to provide details before those presentations.

City Manager Bev Cameron said placing an officer at all four city schools would be “ideal,” but echoed the sentiment of other local officials that it might not be the best answer.

He said devoting more money toward mental health programs for school children might be more effective.

Burch said the city’s two newer schools—James Monroe High and Lafayette Upper Elementary—are in pretty good shape as far as security but said additional locks are being placed at the other two schools.

As in Spotsylvania, police and school personnel are looking inside and outside the schools for issues to address.

Both systems are making inexpensive changes immediately such as eliminating places people could hide, such as behind tall shrubbery, minimizing outsiders’ ability to peer into classrooms and checking door locks.

King George County Schools Superintendent Robert Benson said he had not yet identified safety and security items that might be part of his fiscal 2014 budget proposal but expected to have them within a few weeks.

Caroline County Sheriff Tony Lippa refused to provide any information about the number of deputies assigned to the county’s six schools, and said only that his department’s two crime prevention specialist deputies “continue to reassess” the security of schools.

Efforts to reach Caroline schools superintendent and county administrator for comment were unsuccessful.

Attempts to get input from Colonial Beach officials were also unsuccessful.

ORANGE OFFERS SPECIFICS

Orange County Sheriff Mark Amos said deputies met with school officials after the Newtown shooting to discuss potential problems and improvements but he declined to provide details, citing security concerns.

He said, however, that his department has been hurt by budget cuts, and that he pulled the two school resource officers assigned to the middle schools at the beginning of the school year and reassigned them to patrol. He hoped to return them to those schools by the end of this month.

Though he is requesting two additional deputies in the next budget, they aren’t for the schools but could help increase patrols at them.

Amos said each position costs about $110,000 including salary, benefits, vehicle and equipment.

Orange Superintendent Robert Grimesey said he already has a list of items to enhance security at the county’s schools:

Electronic keyless entry for exterior doors at all schools, $230,000;

Electronic surveillance for all entrances, $50,000;

Reconstruction of entrances at four schools, $30,000.

New internal communication system for one school, cost unknown.

Grimesey said those items will be evaluated as part of the budget process for the coming year and that he hoped the state would provide funding to assist with school security.

LEARNING FROM TRAGEDY

Spotsylvania Superintendent Scott Baker said the co-operation among county leaders in the past three weeks has been impressive.

“There’s a real sense of oneness,” he said. “The only way to approach a comprehensive safety program is to involve everyone.”

He said leaders face the challenge of finding the right mix between safety and maintaining an environment conducive to learning.

He also mentioned the “hidden cost” of placing additional burdens on educators already stretched thin.

As they work on their budgets, Spotsylvania’s Barnes said the costs of protecting students and staff will need to be shared among the school division, general county government and the Sheriff’s Office.

“That’s what our goal is, to be on the same page,” Barnes said.

Stafford County Administrator Anthony Romanello’s comments reflected the same attitude. He commended the sheriff and superintendent for quickly making their assessments, communicating with families and increasing the police presence at schools.

He said he’s a long way from finalizing next year’s budget, but plans to “give strong consideration” to both structural improvements and security enhancements at schools.

Sheriff Jett said he’d like to hire six more deputies so the county could have one at all five high schools and all eight middle schools, but he doesn’t know if that will make it into his proposal since each one costs about $60,000 in training, salary and benefits.

For now, a Stafford deputy has been assigned to check in daily at each school that doesn’t have a resource officer.

Jett said his meetings with Bridges and Romanello have been productive and will be ongoing.

“This dialogue will continue for a long time,” Jett said. “It’s very unfortunate that a tragedy such as this happens, but some benefit may come in terms of all of us being very serious about protecting our kids.”

—Staff writers Donnie Johnston, Lindley Estes, Portsia Smith and Dan McFarland contributed to this report.

Pamela Gould: 540/735-1972

pgould@freelancestar.com

Permalink: http://news.fredericksburg.com/newsdesk/2013/01/05/area-school-officials-evaluate-security-in-wake-of-connecticut-shootings/