By Carla O’Day
Safety measures used by the Washoe County School District are ahead of many school systems nationwide, although there’s room to improve, according to an audit presented to trustees Tuesday.
School Safety Advocacy Council auditors inspected safety procedures, evacuation practices and parent reunification programs, among other things. Members of the district’s Safe and Healthy Schools Commission also reviewed the report.
The commission assists the school district on issues involving safety and security of schools. This includes prevention, intervention, mitigation, preparedness, emergency response and recovery. The report was compiled as part of the district’s emergency operations plan, which is updated annually.
The district rated well on using layered levels of security and having strong emergency management and police departments that do a lot with limited resources.
“Your district is probably far ahead of other school districts in this country,” Sean Burke, president of the Lawrence, Mass.-based advocacy council, told trustees.
A suggestion Burke made was adding police officers at middle schools because some are larger than high schools. This would free up officer time at high schools so they’re not stretched as thin responding to feeder middle schools, and would allow middle school officers to deal with feeder elementary schools if needed.
Schools should be re-keyed each year and the district should consider investing in a system that electronically checks visitors against predator databases, Burke said. Single-point entry systems with “mantraps,” which could include electronic card readers, bullet-resistant doors, cameras, metal detectors and biometric access devices are recommended.
“Every door should be locked unless it’s the door you want everyone to come in through,” Burke said. “When you’re looking to spend money on a renovation or to build new schools, consider card readers.”
High schools that allow students to leave for lunch, known as “open campuses,” see increases in traffic accidents and tardies and raise the potential of unwanted visitors.
“It puts more people at risk. It flies in the face of everything we know that works,” Burke said. “If I didn’t look so old, I could just walk back onto campus with a group of 200 or 300 kids.”
Getting to know children and their families is also vital, Trustee Debra Feemster said. A former principal, Feemster said she’d ask parents to call her—even on weekends—if they heard of anything suspicious.
“Knowing parents and students is key to student safety,” Feemster said.
Other potential challenges include fighting cyber extortion by having the proper equipment in place and getting the correct information out via social media.
For example, a school could be locked down because of something suspicious going on in the neighborhood. But then false rumors of bombings and attacks could surface before district officials are able to get the full story from law enforcement.
“It’s hard to control social media—especially when it comes out of student phones,” Burke said.
A community-wide safety forum is scheduled April 27 and details will be made available as the date nears.
“The safety and security of our students and staff have always been our highest priority,” commission chairwoman Lisa Ruggerio said. “As part of that continuing commitment, we will be holding a safety forum where we look forward to working together with our families, seeking their input, and sharing information in order to build even stronger relationships around this most vital and important issue.”
School Safety Advocacy Council: www.schoolsafety911.org
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Carla has an undergraduate degree in journalism and more than 10 years experience as a daily newspaper reporter. She grew up in Jacksonville, Fla., moved to the Reno area in 2002 and wrote for the Reno Gazette-Journal for 8 years, covering a variety of topics. Prior to that, she covered local government in Fort Pierce, Fla.