On the morning of February 23, 2012, Eric Worden was standing in a doorway at Sidney Glen Elementary School in Port Orchard.
Worden, whose daughter Elizabeth was in the second grade at the time, would typically take days off to volunteer for the school’s parent-led safety program called Watch DOGS Parents to provide an extra pair of eyes. to stop bullying and repress other conflicts. Earlier that day, Washington State Trooper Tony Radulescu was shot and killed at a traffic stop near Gorst. Classrooms in Sidney Glen, just a few miles down Highway 16, have been closed.
Back then, Worden recalled, there was no button to close the school or other safety measures to protect students.
“It was — someone had to arm the door, you know, someone had to stand there,” he said.
School safety procedures have changed dramatically over the past 10 years, and talk of safety has resurfaced in recent weeks following the massacre of 19 schoolchildren and two teachers in Uvalde, Texas. School districts across Kitsap County, including South Kitsap, where Worden’s daughter recently graduated from high school, have been working on security updates following mass shootings across the country.
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“I think teachers, kids and parents are feeling a little extra fragile,” said North Kitsap School District superintendent Laurynn Evans.
Many recent security updates include the addition of door locking systems, the placement of security officers on campus, and increasing the availability of supervisors for students.
Physical changes for school security
When someone registers as a visitor at Olympic High School’s front office in Central Kitsap, they’ve already gone through several layers of security. As you drive onto campus, a single road leads through the trees and down a large hill to the student parking lot. After parking, visitors walk past trees and low-growing shrubs in front of the building’s glass-paneled entrance. Passing cameras and numerous lights, visitors open the door of the building and must immediately register at the reception. Only from there can they enter the building with a bright yellow “VISITOR” sign.
All of these levels of security are by design, says Joe Vlach, Central Kitsap School District’s director of security and operations. The single lane driveway minimizes access points to the campus. Throughout the parking lot, branches are pruned almost halfway up the trunk and shrubs are trimmed to keep them small — all to improve visibility of the building’s exterior, in what Vlach describes as “crime prevention through environmental design.”
Video cameras and lights are placed near entry points, and a key fob is required to open the doors. And before entering the building, visitors have to go through two different rooms and sign in with their name and contact details.
Across the county, school districts have transformed the way the public interacts with their buildings. Some have partnered with the Kitsap County Sheriff’s Office to hire School Resource Offices (SROs) — trained and uniformed guards — to staff campus during school hours. According to Lt. Ken Dickinson, a spokesman for the Kitsap County Sheriff’s Office, these officers have active-shooter training but no additional reaction training for active-shooter situations in schools.
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The North Kitsap, South Kitsap, and Central Kitsap school districts all have SROs on school campuses. The school districts of Bremerton, Bainbridge Island and North Mason do not have SROs and instead fill their own Safety Officer positions.
“Safety is at the top of people’s minds,” said David Beil, director of community relations for the Central Kitsap School District.
When the North Kitsap Evans arrived in 2017, they noted the lack of formalized safety training or building security. She noted that students moved between buildings frequently and that the on-site infrastructure was “very porous”.
After an initial outcry about locking school doors, Evans said the community has moved to support school security.
“I think people now understand the importance and value of doing this,” she said.
In recent years, North Kitsap has added various security updates such as: B. One-push lockdown functionality for all exterior doors and updated entrances that restrict direct access to the building. Evans said the district is currently working on updating the antenna system at Kingston High School to improve radio signals for first responders.
“It’s definitely a scary thought that something like this could happen and then you walk around your school building without paying attention to the pedagogical component, you look at it rather defensively. And that’s just — that’s nothing but parenting that we ever really thought would be a part of our day-to-day lives,” Evans said.
Local dollars pay for security upgrades
The North Kitsap School District is attempting to update the entrances to all of its schools after renovating those at Richard Gordon and Vinland Elementary Schools.
But funding for school security updates, like automatic door locks or camera upgrades, doesn’t come from the state.
“We would love to do that and extend it to all of our schools. Unfortunately, the state gives us $0 for this and we have $0 for the capital improvement. So any further form of hardening of our facilities will depend largely on voter support to hand over a bond over the next few years,” Evans said.
A 2018 capital levy, which will raise about $10 million per year through 2022, went in part to “safety improvements” for the NKSD.
In the Central Kitsap School District, the push for safety improvements at Central Kitsap began after voters approved a $220 million 20-year equity loan in 2016. This measure included funds for improved entrances, including the front of Olympic High School, through which visitors pass through three doors before entering. Those security improvements were being made across the district, including retrofitting of older buildings, Beil noted.
“We’ve had this conversation for many years,” Vlach said.
Students start talking
In the back of Julie Lester’s eighth grade classroom at Hawkins Middle School in Belfair earlier this month, a large red billboard leans against the wall. “PREVENTION AND SAFETY OF SHOOTING IN SCHOOLS,” it says.
The students in Lester’s Honors class devoted part of their year to researching gun violence in schools. Project Citizen, which Lester’s classes have attended for years, is a nationwide organization that encourages local engagement in the political process. The students spent their class time researching gun violence in schools and proposed policy solutions to the North Mason School Board in late May.
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The student project suggested installing metal detectors at school entrances, starting a random locker search program and increasing ALICE training throughout the school year. Many schools in Kitsap County use the active rifleman training program ALICE, which stands for Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter, Evacuate. The program offers active shooter training and procedures that go beyond lockdowns; ALICE training emphasizes other aspects such as evacuations and communication strategies.
ALICE is signed up by more than 5,500 schools across the country, according to its website. SROs attend these training courses as part of the duty to be of service at school, Dickinson said.
According to Topanga Stone, one of the students in Lester’s class, Lester’s class started the project to look for “a better school shooting policy.”
“It feels like we deserve the protection,” Stone said.
Parents are considering new options for students after the recent shootings — things like bulletproof backpacks or dragging their students out of Hawkins for homeschooling. Some are considering sending students to different schools altogether.
Some of the students expressed their sadness that dropping out was even considered.
“We have to go to school. We are required by law to do so. It’s just not safe,” said student Janson Biehl.
A 2018 study by CNN found that there were 288 school shootings in the United States between 2009 and 2018 — compared to the next highest country, Mexico, which had eight (and that calculation may even underestimate the problem).
“I’ve heard about school shootings before, but I figured they were so far away and it would never happen here,” said Bradley Williams, another student in Lester’s class.
Lester has followed her students’ lead on the project, which usually involves a trip to Olympia to present before state legislators (this year’s event was online). In her 33rd year as an apprentice, Lester is still struggling with how much her students’ lives have changed.
“The bottom line is, when you get off the bus or out of the car in the morning, you want to be able to go home that night,” she said. “And you think going home from school at the end of the day is the least of your worries.”