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New Pierce County school buildings being designed as hardened targets against violence

At 8:30 a.m. Thursday, parents shepherded nervous kindergarteners and enthusiastic fifth graders up the steps of Tacoma’s newly rebuilt Mary Lyon Elementary for the first day of school.

Staff, lining the sides of the building, waved signs welcoming students to Mary Lyon, 101 E. 46th St. Using a megaphone, the principal directed families to the cafeteria.

The new Mary Lyon includes a number of improvements, said Nora Doyle, a spokesperson for Tacoma Public Schools. A suite of first-floor classrooms, equipped with a washing machine, a dryer, a microwave, and a small, cafeteria-like room, have been designed specifically for students on the autism spectrum.

The new building has a community meeting space, a public art project and a 2-story library.

“It’s gorgeous. When you walk in through the school it just takes your breath away,” Doyle said.

It also has something being incorporated at new school buildings across the county: heightened security measures.

At the new Mary Lyon, all entryways will remain locked when school is in session. Visitors will only be able to access the building through the front entrance. If a visitor wishes to enter the school, they’ll have to display an ID, and be buzzed by staff through the front door.

“Our highest priority is to keep students and staff safe,” Doyle said. “It’s the way we’ll be operating moving forward.”

Staying safe

Five other new school buildings opened up across Pierce County this week. The Sumner-Bonney Lake School District opened their new Sumner Early Learning Center on Wednesday. The district’s Emerald Hills Elementary School will open later in the year.

The Puyallup School District opened four new elementary school buildings. The Firgrove, Northwood and Sunrise elementary schools have been rebuilt. The district also opened an entirely new school in South Hill, called Dessie F. Evans Elementary, which can hold 964 students.

They’ve all been designed as hardened targets, architecturally reinforced against school violence.

School violence has made national headlines this year. CNN reported that as of late July, there have been 22 school shootings across the country in 2019.

According to Doyle, all new schools in the Tacoma district will be built with tightened security in mind.

The new Sumner Early Learning Center, for preschool and kindergarten students, is also equipped with heightened safety measures.

According to Elle Warmuth, spokesperson for the Sumner-Bonney Lake district, the center will have a controlled entry and a camera monitoring system. It was built with a nearly $19 million construction contract.

The Early Learning Center also has a single-button lock-down system. With these systems, school staff can press a button to lock all entrances to the building. Some lock-down systems also notify staff of any remaining open doors and send out a call to law enforcement.

The district’s new Emerald Hills Elementary School, with a more than $22 million construction contract, will include the same security features.

According to Brian Fox, spokesperson for the Puyallup School District, all four new schools were built with safety in mind. The buildings have multiple windows which give staff direct views from the main office to the entrance.

They’re surrounded with wide, green spaces without bushes. According to Fox, that’s to ensure there are no hiding places near the school, or the possibility for obstructed vision.

Architectural designs like these give staff “greater knowledge of who is coming to the building,” Fox said.

The new schools also have installed cameras, which give staff in the main office the ability to monitor what’s going on in the hallways.

In July, the Puyallup School Board authorized a bond measure which will be placed on the ballot in November, The News Tribune reported.

The $273 million bond would fund “high school facility improvements.” According to the district’s website, “improving safety in high schools is the number one priority.”

Fox said all elementary and junior high schools in the district currently have a single entry buzzing system like Mary Lyon’s. Visitors have to go to the locked door, state why they would like to enter, and show their ID before being buzzed into the school.

One of the priorities of the bond measure, if passed, would be to make every high school in the district have a similar single entry system, he said. Puyallup high schools currently don’t have this.

New Mary Lyon

7-year-old Gwen Conway sat outside the new Mary Lyon this morning with her brother and her mom.

“I’m nervous,” she said. Conway starts second-grade this year.

This year marks her first time enrolled in a Tacoma Public School. She and her 9-year-old brother, Ché Ortiz-Conway both previously attended tribal school and will start at Mary Lyon for the first time.

Their mother Patricia Ortiz said she’s lived in the area for the past 11 years, and has loved watching the construction of the new school.

“We’re just really excited watching the transformation,” she said.

Like Brown’s Point Elementary School, another Tacoma school which opened in December. Mary Lyon is one of 13 schools which received funding from the district’s 2013 capital facilities improvements bond.

The $500 million bond allocates funds to remodel or replace Tacoma schools, according to The News Tribune.

The original Mary Lyon, built in the early 1900s, was one of the oldest school buildings in the district, Doyle said. The district projects the new school will cost $34.9 million in total.

Students and parents are equally excited about the new building.

“I feel good,” 6-year-old Kara Weitzel said. She’s going into first grade this year.

“This is just really cool,” parent Allie Corrigan added. “It’s nice kids have a space specifically designed for them.”

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