School board continues discussion on security upgrades

WMHS LogoThe Watertown-Mayer School Board continued it’s discussions on school security during its meeting last Tuesday, when Superintendent Dave Marlette informed the board that a Minnesota locksmith company, aiming to become more involved in school security, was scheduled to visit the district last Wednesday and Thursday to recommend possible security improvements.

Marlette said the company was planning to do a sweep of each of the district’s buildings, prepare a list of possible upgrades, and present the findings to the school board later this month. Marlette said his understanding is that the company may be prepared to make some of the upgrades for free in order to use the district as a model as it moves more into the school security business.

In the meantime, the School Board continued to discuss other options that came up during a public hearing on the issue in early January. School security has become a hot topic not just in Watertown-Mayer, but in districts around the county after the December school shootings at en elementary school in Connecticut.

During that January meeting, the School Board, numerous parents, and a representative of the Carver County Sheriff’s Office discussed everything from better securing entrances to the pros and cons of arming select staff members with guns. Numerous members of the School Board expressed surprise during last Tuesday’s meeting regarding the number of parents who voiced support at the previous meeting for providing teachers with guns.

“What was surprising to me was the number of people that seemed to favor adding somebody armed within the school,” board member Chad Koehler said. “It was more overwhelming in favor.”

Indeed, numerous parents voiced support for such a measure during the January meeting — whether that be arming a teacher or some other armed security presence — while nobody spoke out against such a move. However, board chairman John McCain said if the district were to actually hold a meeting specifically to address that idea, there would probably be plenty of opposition represented.

McCain also voiced his personal opposition to the idea of arming teachers.

“I would entertain a discussion of having trained law enforcement to have a presence in our buildings for security, but I don’t think I would be prepared to entertain a discussion on arming our staff,” he said.

The board expressed numerous concerns with the idea of arming teachers, most notably the question of whether a teacher with a conceal carry permit and limited training could adequately respond in a time of panic. Furthermore, it was pointed out if that teacher was on the opposite side of the building, by the time they approached the shooter, law enforcement would probably be at the scene.

Several board members also posed questions about the district’s liability if a teacher were to inadvertently injure or kill a student while trying to shoot the intruder. Others raised concern with the idea of having a teacher waving a gun in the building while law enforcement entered in search of a shooter, and the idea that the teacher could be shot by law enforcement.

Board member Steve Burns, as he did during the January meeting, said that before the board even continued to discuss or considered such a measure — which Marlette said Minnesota law does allow — it would make sense to hear what the teachers have to say about it first.

“I think the first thing we need to do is have a staff meeting,” he said. “Get all the staff together in the gym and ask them what they’re feelings on this are. You’re going to find out pretty quick what their thoughts are. An armed police officer in the building is one thing, but to have a teacher packing heat is totally different.”

The idea of having a trained security presence in the schools was also addressed, although the board pointed to numerous flaws with that option. At the January meeting, many parents and board members were intrigued by the idea of a resource officer in the school. Only two districts in the county currently have one, and in those districts, that officer rotates between the different schools in the district.

However, resource officers are usually hired more to be an extra set of eyes in the school and promote positive behavior, discourage drugs and alcohol, and that sort of thing. Armed security is typically not at the top of the list.

“The idea of having a resource officer, we would have to have discussions on what we’re trying to accomplish with that,” McCain said. “If it is to have a presence and relationships with students, and the presence of authority in the building, that’s one thing. But to have one officer rotating between the buildings doesn’t really help with security. What we would be trying to accomplish would be the big question.”

Most of the board seemed to agree that posting a resource officer or armed guard in each building was not much of a financially feasible option, especially to address a concern that was unlikely to ever come into play.

“I think you’re more likely to die in a car accident driving your kid to school than you are from a shooter in the school,” McCain said. “We do not have an open check book. Far from it. We ring our hands over, ‘can we hire another elementary teacher to bring the class size from 24 to 21.’ That’s our reality.”

Given the financial restraints, it seems more likely the district would opt for simpler, more cost effective options. The security company’s visit to the district may shed more light on those options, but initially, the idea of better securing entrances and more strictly screening visitors seems to be at the top of the list. One preliminary idea mentioned during the meeting was the mention of adding a second glass wall at the middle school, forcing visitors to enter the office first and pass through what would need to be a second door into the school.

That setup already exists at the elementary school, where the secretary can also lock all the office doors at the press of a button. Currently, the initial door into the office is not locked, but the intruder theoretically could be locked inside the office. However, that system can also be set so a person has to be buzzed in to even gain access to the office in the first place, and one parent at last Tuesday’s meeting voiced support for changing the way that system is set up.

McCain agreed that simpler fixes, including better entrance security, should be the first priority.

“I think that is an improvement we ought to be looking at, and those types of things,” he said.

Contact Matt Bunke at [email protected]