Public schools in Dane County poured nearly $3 million into security upgrades over the summer, continuing a trend that began nearly 15 years ago with a school shooting in Columbine, Colo.
Almost all school buildings in the county will have secure entrances when classes begin this week, even in the small, rural districts of Belleville and Wisconsin Heights. All outside doors in both districts will be locked after the start of the school day, a first for both districts but a standard precaution now across much of the county.
Several districts, including Sun Prairie, added a layer of security beyond an intercom system, spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to reconfigure entrances so that visitors walk directly into an office or a locked vestibule before being let into any other part of the school. At two schools in McFarland, that meant swapping a classroom for an office, part of $374,000 in summer security upgrades there.
“I doubt you’ll find too many districts that didn’t do something over the summer,” said Joe Bellomo, facilities director in Waunakee, which also is locking all main doors this fall for the first time and has spent about $40,000 since spring for entrances with intercoms, buzzers and cameras.
Most of the upgrades had been in the works for a year or more, although a mass killing at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., last December gave the measures new urgency, district officials said.
“Every time a tragic incident occurs, we learn something, and we reevaluate,” said Tom Wohlleber, an assistant superintendent in the Middleton-Cross Plains School District, which spent about $650,000 on security upgrades this summer.
The Newtown tragedy provided many lessons, although the central one might be the most difficult to hear, said Ronald Stephens, executive director of the National School Safety Center in Westlake Village, Calif.
The Newtown killer shot his way into the school through glass doors, defeating a security system requiring visitors to be buzzed in.
“If you have a determined shooter or killer, they are going to be very difficult to stop,” Stephens said.
He tells districts to “do everything you can, knowing you can’t do everything.”
Paying for it
Most districts said they found the money for the upgrades by prioritizing safety within their maintenance and capital budgets, even if it meant delaying other projects such as roof replacements.
Almost all of the spending occurred outside of Madison, which, as a large urban district, already had instituted most measures. It began moving to locked doors several years ago and completed the final two school buildings last year, said security coordinator Luis Yudice. Its schools use a mix of intercom systems and welcome centers to screen visitors.
Madison also was an early adopter of school surveillance cameras, a move that led to a student walkout over privacy concerns and a split School Board decision in 2001. Now, they are everywhere, and they cause nary a ripple.
“We typically don’t get any pushback,” said Brian Boehm, an associate principal at Verona High School, which is spending $64,278 this month to replace a raft of outdated cameras with 46 new ones that provide greater clarity and more replay and search functions.
The expenditure is part of $283,938 in district security upgrades over the last three months, said Chris Murphy, business manager. Entrances at three Verona schools were remodeled over the summer, and a $111,000 keyless entry system was installed districtwide.
The keyless system brings Verona up to date with most other Dane County districts. Employees, vendors and contractors now will enter by swiping an ID card.
The cards are programmable, so a community group that rents a school gym every Saturday for two hours, for instance, would be issued a card that works only during those hours, said Ken Kietzke, Verona’s building and grounds director.
“There won’t be all these keys floating around the community anymore,” he said.
The biggest trend in school security is the locking of all outside doors after the school day starts. Out of nearly 150 public school buildings in the county, the State Journal found only seven that will still allow the public to come and go freely this fall. The newspaper is not naming the schools so as not to jeopardize student safety.
The Monona Grove School District spent about $300,000 over the summer on security upgrades, mostly to secure school entrances. It also added an automatic lockdown feature at all six district school buildings.
“By just throwing a switch, every programmable door locks immediately,” said Mark Scullion, building and grounds director and safety coordinator.
The Middleton-Cross Plains District has begun a similar process at its 13 buildings, installing programmable doors and identifying parts of buildings that can be “compartmentalized” and shut off from other areas in an emergency, Wohlleber said.
Also over the summer, the district added locking devices on all classroom doors at elementary schools so that doors can now can be locked from the inside, Wohlleber said. Previously, the only way a teacher could lock a door was to step into the hallway or reach around the door and lock it from the outside with a key. The locking devices were a relatively inexpensive addition but an important one, he said.
Not all of the security upgrades involved hardware. In DeForest, all front office staff took training over the summer in what has become known as “verbal judo,” or using words to prevent or de-escalate potentially explosive situations.
“It’s all those things you can do rather than meet hostility with hostility,” said Superintendent Sue Borden.
School officials stress that physical changes to buildings are just one piece of the security puzzle, and not even the most important one.
For years now, districts have focused on anti-bullying programs, relationship-building initiatives, conflict-resolution strategies and other measures intended to keep students safe from each other.
“The best safety prevention techniques are the ones that catch little problems before they become big issues,” said Oregon Superintendent Brian Busler.