Safety a focus as Whatcom County schools get back in session

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDAugust 25, 2013 

As students are readying their return to class, school officials throughout Whatcom County are taking steps to keep kids safer on campus.

Whether it's through increased police presence, physical changes to buildings or dedicated money from bonds, safety is a focal point for local districts in the upcoming school year.

"Safety always needs to be a high priority," said Linda Quinn, superintendent of the Ferndale School District.

Starting this fall, Ferndale is forming a new safety advisory committee to take a comprehensive look at safety and security throughout the district. The committee will coordinate with first responders, review safety plans and make sure that all schools have consistent safety plans.

Ferndale already has a school resource officer, an armed Ferndale Police officer who is headquartered at the high school and whose salary is partially paid by the district. The officer works with students, staff and parents to resolve any issues that come up, answer questions and build relationships.

Nooksack Valley School District also will continue to have a security task force this year; it started in January, shortly after the Sandy Hook school shootings in December 2012. The focus is on making practical, reasonable and sustainable changes to help improve safety and be better prepared, Nooksack Valley High School Principal Matt Galley said.

"Instead of 'Oh, that can never happen here,' the mentality is that it may happen here, but we want to do everything we can so if something does happen we're prepared," said Galley, who leads the task force.

The district has begun implementing some of the task force's ideas. Fencing is being installed around some of the schools to funnel visitors to main entrances. At those entrances, the district plans on installing security cameras so front office staff can see who is entering the building.

To allow teachers to lock classroom doors more quickly during emergencies, levers have been added to the hinges that allow doors to stay locked but not fully closed throughout the day. A flip of the lever allows the doors to close and lock securely, rather than teachers having to take the time to find and fumble with keys to get doors locked.

The district is also encouraging local police officers to do paperwork in school parking lots when they have a chance, to increase officer visibility on campuses.

In Bellingham and Lynden, both school districts are putting out bonds that will address security issues in schools. If voters approve it in February 2014, Lynden's proposed $46 million bond will pay to rebuild the middle school and Fisher Elementary, both of which have multiple entrances and outdated infrastructure. The rebuilds will address safety concerns, including locking and securing the campus, limiting entry points, and making the bus drop-off area safer.

Bellingham School District's proposed $160 million bond - set for the November 2013 ballot - includes $2 million for improving school safety, with plans for video monitoring, improved internal and external communications, updated locking systems and possibly panic buttons for main offices for quick emergency response.

"The stuff that's happened unfortunately in our country involving schools has gotten everyone's attention," said Ron Cowan, Bellingham's assistant superintendent for finance and operations. "We'd like to take appropriate measures to lessen the possibility that we'd have one of those incidents occur in Bellingham. We should do whatever we can to keep kids safe."

One of the biggest bond projects is a rebuild of Sehome High School, currently a California-style campus with multiple points of entry that make security a challenge.

Having a single point of entry was a security decision when Meridian School District built its new high school, which opened in spring 2013, and is a priority as it finishes a new elementary school set to open this winter, Superintendent Tom Churchill said.

At the high school, the building perimeter is fenced with doors locked during the day so visitors have to come to the main entrance. The main entrance is also locked during the day, and video cameras allow main office staff to see who is at the door before buzzing people in.

The same buzz-in process will be in place at the new elementary school as well.

Blaine School District has budgeted $50,000 to $60,000 to support a part-time Blaine Police presence on campus for the upcoming school year. The goal would be to have an officer on campus for 20 hours a week, especially during active times at the start and end of the day and during lunch.

Blaine Superintendent Ron Spanjer said the police presence would be more proactive than reactive, and had been successful when the district had a resource officer in the past before federal grant funding disappeared. The hope is that officers would get to know staff and students and see where issues are developing before they get out of hand.

"We're talking about trying to stay out ahead of those things and help everyone in the community that works with kids or families to maintain that network, that intervention context, that's much more collaborative and user-friendly than having to respond after the fact to something that's occurred," Spanjer said.

Bellingham has one district resource officer and has increased funding for the 2013-14 school year to try to get another.

One step local districts won't be taking in the name of security: arming teachers and school staff. While a few of the roughly 300 districts in the state have decided to have armed staff, there hasn't been much support for it in Whatcom County communities, officials said.

"We had a discussion about that and decided that we think that's not a good idea," said Quinn from the Ferndale district. "We just believe that the opportunity for error way outweighs any benefit."

Reach Zoe Fraley at 360-756-2803 or zoe.fraley@bellinghamherald.com. Read the School Days Blog at bellinghamherald.com/dispatcher-blog or follow us on Twitter at @bhamcrime.

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