A national tragedy and an incident closer to home have prompted the Peninsula School District to look at what can be done to improve school security, both short-term and long-term.
A shooting grabbed national headlines and renewed the debate on gun control when a 20-year-old man fatally wounded 20 children and six adult staff members at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.
Meanwhile, a 59-year-old Gig Harbor man has been charged with allegedly shooting at two custodians on Jan. 15 as they drove away from Goodman Middle School. No one was injured.
Examining school safety and security issues dovetails with the district’s update of its long-range strategic plan, which was last evaluated and retooled in 2008, Superintendent Chuck Cuzzetto said.
One of the main goals of the strategic plan is to provide a safe learning environment for all students and staff members.
“We wanted to look at what we could do immediately,” Cuzzetto said, referring to the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary killings, the second deadliest school shooting in U.S. history, after the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre.
Academic Officer Dan Gregory said the school district’s communication system is the key in dealing with an active-shooter scenario or other emergency. A lockdown of a given school or district building can be called in from any place in the facility, he said, but more training is needed to make sure the system operates smoothly.
A recent inventory of school radio systems revealed several schools need to have upgraded radios, Gregory said, something that was scheduled to have taken place by press time.
In keeping with the district’s goal of improving communication, the district recently activated its ability to send text messages to parents who have provided their cell phone numbers. Those who have done so receive a message from the district asking to accept text messages from the district.
Those who would like to receive the service can contact the appropriate schools and have them add their cell phone number to your student’s or students’ records.
In addition, the district has launched its Facebook and Twitter pages, which can be found at https://www.facebook.com/psd401 and twitter.com/psd401, respectively.
Gregory said the district also is looking at its procedures in order to ensure people sign in when they visit a school and sign out when they leave.
“Just being more intentional in our approach to these things,” Gregory said. “We need to recognize who’s coming in and out the front door.”
Finally, the district is looking at a more restrictive system in terms of limiting unlocked access to district buildings.
“Most of these things are of little or no cost,” Gregory said.
It’s a matter of achieving a balance between a safe and secure building and one that is welcoming, he said.
Identification badges are being considered for all district employees, Gregory said, including maintenance personnel, as well as training for staff and students who greet and otherwise deal with visitors.
Beyond the confines of district buildings, school bus protocols are being examined with an eye toward implementing fundamental changes.
“If a driver can’t handle a given situation,” Gregory said, “he or she needs to find a location to pull over and manage the situation.”
Part of that will involve knowing which area fire stations are staffed so drivers can pull over near those locations in case additional help is needed, Gregory said.
Being prepared for any type of emergency also means continuing activities like conducting fire and lockdown drills, Cuzzetto said.
“We don’t advertise a lot of that, but it happens all the time,” he said, adding the district emulates best practices from other districts and emergency service organizations.
Part of the long-term outlook on school security and safety involves maintaining and strengthening the district’s relationship with law enforcement, including the Pierce County Sheriff’s Office and the Gig Harbor Police Department.
The alleged shooting incident near Goodman Middle School has allowed the district to reconnect with law enforcement, Gregory said, noting the district has had a good relationship with law enforcement.
An increased police presence was part of the plan in the aftermath of Sandy Hook and the shooting near Goodman Middle School. Law enforcement officers also had a stepped-up presence on Dec. 21 on the campuses of Peninsula High School and Harbor Ridge Middle School following reports of a threat that involved both schools on the last day of class before Christmas break.
“It’s reassuring to know the Gig Harbor Police Department and the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department work cooperatively to protect our students,” Cuzzetto said.
That includes working with the school district’s resource officer, Pierce County Deputy Sean Decker, who looked at the district’s elementary schools and made some recommendations, such as locking more entrances, as well as potential building modifications.
The school district works closely with the Pierce County Department of Emergency Management, which provides information to school districts countywide.
“They’ve developed some training modules,” Gregory said, noting the district has partnered with Pierce County for years.
It’s a partnership that likely will continue.
“Pierce County Emergency Management has been working with all the school districts in the county on emergency planning issues for the past six years, which includes modules on active-shooter scenarios,” said Sheri Badger, public information officer and public education, training and high-risk populations supervisor for Pierce County Emergency Management. “We’ve worked on relationships with school districts, including Peninsula School District, and their school resource officers to train students, teachers and administration on what to do in a variety of emergency incidents.”
The shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary brought the issue of gun control back into the spotlight. Asked about the criticism by some people who say making schools gun-free zones, even for civilians who have a license to carry a concealed firearm, essentially turns schools into areas full of unarmed targets, Cuzzetto said “everything is on the table.”
“I think we need to have meaningful dialogue about these issues,” he said. “We know we have some work to do.”Reporter Brett Davis can be reached at 253-358-4151 or by email at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter, @gateway_brett.