School board, parents discuss security measures

The Watertown-Mayer School board met with a group of about a dozen parents and a representative of the Carver County Sheriff’s Office last week to discuss possible improvements to the district’s security policies.

Similar discussions have been held in school districts across the country since the Dec. 14 shooting deaths of 26 students and staff members at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn. Much like those other discussions, this Jan. 3 meeting at the Watertown Community Center touched on topics ranging widely from better securing school entrances all the way to arming school administrators or other select staff members.

While concerns among parents varied greatly, the one thing everybody in the room seemed to agree on is that it is nearly impossible to keep a shooter that’s intent on getting into a school from doing just that. Even at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, where the recent shootings occurred, the shooter was able to bypass a secure buzzer entry system by shooting his way into the building.

“If the shooter wants to find a way in, he’s probably going to come in, and he’s probably not going to come in where all the security is,” Watertown-Mayer superintendent Dave Marlette said.

That’s why much of the discussion at last week’s meeting focused the school’s procedures once a shooter is inside the building. Several parents asked administrators about the frequency of lock-down drills, whether they are performed in both the morning and afternoon in regards to half-day kindergarten, and whether those who staff the before- and after-school Kid’s Company child care programs are also familiar with the lock-down procedures.

Marlette said the district already meets or exceeds state requirements that each building hold five fire drills per year, five lock-down drills per year and one tornado drill per year. Marlette said the schools try to hold at least one such drill each month.

Commander Paul Tschida of the Carver County Sheriff’s Office, who agreed that it is extremely difficult to keep shooters out of school buildings in the first place, said it was especially important for staff and students to know exactly how to react in case a shooter does enter a building. He said schools must take their drills very seriously, and not simply go through the motions.

Tschida also noted that while it may be tough to keep a shooter out of a building, even slowing them down with increased security measures can make a world of difference.

“Every five seconds you slow them down gives us that much more time to respond,” he said.

At all three Watertown-Mayer schools, all entrances besides the main doors are locked during the day, and all  visitors are required to sign in at the office. Staff are encouraged to confront and question anybody they find in the building without a guest pass.

At the Elementary School, the most secure of the three buildings, visitors must actually enter a special set of doors, then pass through a second set of doors into the school office, and then pass through a third set of doors to finally enter the school. The school also has a lock-down system that allows the secretary at the front desk to lock all three sets of doors at the touch of a button.

The high school is a bit less secure in that the main office is located at the top of a staircase inside the main entrance. At the bottom of that staircase is another set of doors leading to the pool and gym areas. Those doors are locked during the school day, but could potentially be broken by an intruder before even coming into view of the office. The idea of adding security cameras at the doors to all three schools was discussed, as well as the potential for adding a buzzer entry system.

The Primary School building, based on its multiple uses and various district offices scattered throughout the school, probably features the most security concerns. However, the school has taken steps recently to ensure that people entering the building through the main doors are more visible to the main office. The district is also considering centralizing the offices in the building into one location near the front door as part of a larger remodeling project slated for this summer.

“You can’t create a fortress,” Tschida said, adding that Watertown-Mayer’s security measures were similar to almost every other district in the state. “You’re pretty much right on target with what you’re doing.”

Still, many districts will be looking to bolster security in the wake of the recent Connecticut tragedy, and members of the Watertown-Mayer School Board seemed genuinely intent on doing everything possible to ensure the schools are as secure as they realistically can be. One possible idea that seemed to gain strong support from several members of the council, as well as parents in attendance, is a Community Resource Officer. That officer would spend time at each of the three schools in the district.

The idea would be that students would become accustomed to having that sort of presence around, and it would put an extra set of eyes in the schools. Even if the officer was not full time in the district, if his schedule was random, it would leave potential suspects unsure when the officer would be present.

Watertown-Mayer Schools used to share a Community Resource Officer with Norwood Young America. Currently, Waconia and Chanhassen are the only districts in the county that have one, and both feature one full-time officer for their district.

Tschida said the single greatest obstacle to preventing these school incidents is that shooters generally know they will meet little resistance once inside a school. A Community Resource Officer could provide at least one more line of security.

“The truth of the matter is, the people that are coming into these schools know that nobody in these schools is armed,” Tschida said. “They know they have a free avenue to go in there and kill as many people as they can. I don’t know what the answer is to straighten that out.”

Tschida said he didn’t believe arming staff members with weapons was a good solution, and it wouldn’t be a best practice advised by the Sheriff’s Office. However, several members of the public in attendance at the meeting were strong advocates of such a plan.

After several attendees spoke in favor of arming staff members, no parents spoke up to oppose the idea. However, school board chairman John McCain noted obvious concerns with going in that direction.

“You can’t expect a staff member who has a concealed carry license and goes to the range occasionally to be able to react like they would need to react, and be effective,” he said. “That is something that would be a really big deal. I’m not automatically opposed to it, but it’s not something we could just roll out.”

School board member Steve Burns noted that before the district would even consider something like that, it would be important to hear what the staff and faculty has to say.

“I would almost like to see the principals and the teachers get together and have a meeting on that very subject … and see what their feelings on it are, and if that’s something they would even want to talk about,” he said. “They’re the ones that would have to do it.”

While the board ultimately did not make any sort of decisions at the meeting, it did express interest in keeping the discussion alive and moving forward with any changes that can be readily made and are financially feasible.

“I don’t think this is going to be the end of our discussion,” McCain said. “I don’t view this as a one-time meeting to give the appearance of having addressed an issue. This is something we do need to think about more, do some evaluations of our current situation, see what improvements we can readily make, and have an open mind for something more significant.”

Contact Matt Bunke at [email protected]