Dist. 728 schools: ‘Welcoming but secure’

After Sandy Hook, buzzer system, security camera pilot project took off last school year

by Jim Boyle

Elk River Star News


In the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre on Dec. 14, 2012, the Elk River Area School District decided in January to launch a pilot study on security cameras and buzzer systems at the entrances of elementary schools across the district.

The first went in at Otsego Elementary School, and the pilot project quickly took off from there with wide acceptance and little resistance.

By the end of the school year, every school in the district, including middle schools and high schools, had the new security systems. They each cost about $6,000 and are funded out of a safe schools levy the district regularly uses. The last one was installed and activated three days before the end of the 2012-13 school year at Elk River High School.

Judy Johnson, the violence prevention specialist and crisis response coordinator, who guides school officials through the process of continually monitoring school safety and making changes to improve it, said she couldn’t be prouder than at the end of the year when she watched an Elk River High School student direct a guest of the school to the intercom and buzzer system at the front door.

The guest had clearly hoped to get a free pass with nonverbal cues for her to open the door for him. She wouldn’t.

That’s the kind of buy-in the district has gotten, one of the district’s more drastic measures to bolster safety.

“We’re not trying to make it a pain,” Johnson said. “We want welcoming schools, but they need to be safe.”

Making schools safe is a multifaceted task.

“Are we perfect?” Johnson asked. “No. It’s a work in progress.”

After Sandy Hook last winter, Johnson said district officials were approached by students, parents and staff about possible changes in the Elk River area.

“We looked at everything and discussed what do we need to do differently,” Johnson said.

Once the decision was made on security cameras and the pilot got moving, the district added about one a week until they had done them all.

“Not everybody agreed, but we thought it was important,” she said.

Still, the new security intercom and buzzer systems are only part of the puzzle.

The schools do five fire drills a year, five lock-down drills and one tornado drill a year in the spring. They even do drills after school hours to test the community members who might be at an athletic game or some other meeting or program.

And for those that don’t heed the alarms, there are disciplinary warnings handed out.

“We’ve never had to take it farther than that,” Johnson said.

“There has been enough (tragedies) that people understand their importance,” she said. “It used to be that convenience came over safety. It’s not that way anymore.”

Johnson said the district is now looking at constructing a vestibule outside the front entrance of Elk River High School, because the main office is located some distance from the main entrance.

A new system of badges tied into some form of an ID or driver’s license are also on the docket to be considered.

Parker Elementary, now through its remodel, has a brick-and-mortar vestibule, and the main office has been repositioned so staff and can more easily see who is coming and going. This, along with the ability to do a successful lock-down drill, were two factors in the district’s decision to move ahead with the remodel of an open school.

Web-based technology is also improving communications between schools and law enforcement.

The Elk River Area School District also addresses the mental health side of the issue, and it promotes violence prevention.

It has had two mental health summits, and bullying prevention has been a hot button issues within the school communities.

These efforts also are making their way into curriculum to further promote change.

The Elk River Area School District also rolled out an anonymous tip line that can be accessed by texting 274637 and starting a message with YAC ELKS.

This line is intended to be a safe place to report weapons, drugs, alcohol and any other criminal activity.

“Kids understand the difference between tattling, which is to get someone in trouble,” Johnson said. “Reporting is keeping people safe.”

That’s the side Johnson wants to see staff, students and community on all the time.