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Shooting teaches lesson in school security

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When many Johnson County schools were built, designing the building to keep the wrong people out wasn’t a major focus.

But now that is a top concern for parents and administrators.

A study of Center Grove school buildings showed that most of district buildings were too open and that it was too difficult to keep track of people coming in. That led to the school district’s plans to spend more than $1.4 million to better control who comes in and out of nearly all buildings, to add backup power for emergency communications and to find ways to make playgrounds more secure.

Initially, the plan was to start that work in May 2014. But following the shooting at an elementary school in Connecticut, where 20 children and six adults were killed, Center Grove Superintendent Richard Arkanoff decided he didn’t want to wait, and he began making plans for short-term improvements to building entrances.

“I like to help parents relax a little,” Arkanoff said. “We owe it to parents to do all we can.”

Across the county, the amount of security a school’s visitor has to go through often depends on when the building was built.

Currently, Maple Grove Elementary School has the most secure entrance of any of Center Grove’s schools because people must enter the building through the office. That’s partly because Maple Grove, Center Grove’s newest building, was constructed six years ago after security had become a regular part of school designs.

Center Grove High School, by contrast, buzzes visitors in through the front entrance; but once they’re inside they can walk through multiple hallways without going through the office.

Other local school districts face similar differences between new buildings and ones constructed years ago.

At Franklin, for example, newer buildings such as Custer Baker Intermediate School, Franklin Community Middle School and Franklin Community High School all have entrances that require visitors entering the building to pass through the main office before they can get to classrooms.

Older buildings, such as the elementary schools, direct anyone entering to check in at the office, but the building layout doesn’t require them to pass through the office, where staff members would ask them why they were there, Superintendent David Clendening said.

On Monday, Clendening asked facilities manager Bill Doty to start assessing buildings’ entrances to see whether they’re secure or need to be updated. Those updates could include short- and long-term upgrades, although Clendening doesn’t know yet what those could include or when they could be installed.

Installing cameras is one possibility, he said.

“Obviously we look into any option we can to make our buildings as safe as possible,” he said.

Anyone visiting Indian Creek’s intermediate, middle or high school already had to enter the building through the office. Now Nineveh-Hensley-Jackson schools is installing buzzers at those entrances so office staff can decide whether or not to let someone into the building, Superintendent Matt Prusiecki said. Indian Creek Elementary already has a buzzer at the entrance, which doesn’t take visitors through the office, Prusiecki said.

The plans to add buzzers at Nineveh-Hensley-Jackson’s buildings were made earlier this year after a study by the district showed the entrances weren’t secure enough, Prusiecki said.

Specific details of Center Grove’s short-term upgrades aren’t yet known, and Arkanoff doesn’t want to reveal all of the options the school district is considering. But cameras, which would allow a school’s office staff to see who is trying to get in, and buzzers, which would allow them to unlock the front doors remotely, are possibilities, he said.

Entrances at some buildings could have the new additions in place by the time school resumes next month, but that depends on how much work the upgrades involve, Arkanoff said.

Because the short-term upgrades would be considered a minor project Arkanoff won’t need school board approval. The exception is if a construction project such as adding a new doorway costs more than $50,000, or if equipment such as cameras cost more than $150,000, according to Arkanoff, assistant superintendent Bill Long and chief financial officer Paul Gabriel.

Next month, Arkanoff plans to recommend hiring an architect for the long-term security and other facility upgrades.

The architect would create concept drawings detailing the schools’ added security, as well as plans to upgrade the furniture and climate control at Center Grove Elementary School, North Grove Elementary School and Center Grove High School. Those upgrades are intended to make sure students aren’t distracted during the school day and can focus on their lessons, Long and Arkanoff said.

Administrators and the school board will need to decide what projects they want done and when, Arkanoff said.

Costs will be determined once those projects are selected, Gabriel said.

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