Sandy Hook’s ripple effect reaches Elk River
by Jim Boyle
Andi Zwirner has been the face of the Otsego Elementary since it opened in 1995.
The senior secretary still is, but now visitors to the school are being greeted by her or one of her colleagues in the school’s main office before they even enter the school.
The main doors to the school are now locked during the school day. Guests must be buzzed in. It’s all part of a pilot security initiative, which is expected to be replicated at elementary schools across the Elk River Area School District.
It was implemented Jan. 18 at a cost of about $6,000.
The response has been overwhelmingly positive, according to Principal Erin Talley and other school officials.
“We have not had one complaint,” she said. “The parents have been very supportive.”
Christen Evenson, the mother of a first-grade student and a fourth-grade student at the school, was one of the people expressing her support for the new system this past week.
She got to use it soon after it was installed. She and her husband, Dave, came to have school lunch their 7-year-old daughter. Evenson had read in a letter from Talley that new security measures were coming.
She said upon arrival at the school she didn’t know where to find the button, but after a few seconds of looking she found it, then pushed it and in seconds she and her husband were granted admittance.
“I was very pleased, of course,” Evenson said. “With the recent school shooting, school security is at the forefront of your mind. You worry about your kids when they’re not with you.
“I know you can’t keep every bad guy out of the school, but I think having deterrents is the best idea. That way people who might think of doing something that’s not good for kids might think twice.”
That’s how people like Judy Johnson, the Elk River Area School District’s violence prevention specialist and crises response coordinator, views the intercom system. She refers to it as “mitigation.” In a world with shootings at schools, that translates into lives possibly being saved.
“The intercom system is not an end-all, but it helps,” Johnson said.
Various initiatives are also being considered at the secondary schools, and those will come forward later, Johnson said.
Just like in the event of a fire drill or a practice lock down, school officials reviewed their crises response plans after Sandy Hook.
“When buildings were built, school shootings were not even on the radar,” Johnson said. “Metro districts have added this (style of security) or a different type of check-in system, but districts across the state are now looking at what they do differently and better.”
Johnson says to date Elk River has done a great job in terms of crisis planning, drills (fire, tornado, lock down, etc.) and developing partnerships with local agencies.
“We try to stay a step ahead, but we can’t plan for every incident,” she said.
There’s also a limit to how much money can be spent, and not all security measures would be welcome.
“There’s not one magic bullet,” Johnson said. “It’s a combination of things that’s needed and it’s being tuned in, and constantly talking about, reviewing and practicing plans.”
Superintendent Mark Bezek said the decision to do a pilot first came from a desire to test it and make sure it works well. Each elementary school will cost about $4,000 to $6,000 to equip.
“We didn’t want to go all out and find that it didn’t work,” he said. “So far things are going real well. It’s an inconvenience, but at what cost?”
Bezek said people’s mind set changes when something like the Sandy Hook Elementary School tragedy happens. People are willing to be inconvenienced for the sake of safety.
Some have suggested arming teachers and principals. Bezek said he’s not in favor of that. He said having police liaisons in the schools serves the district well. Others have suggested armed security guards.
Johnson said those kinds of approaches would require lot of planning, changes in laws and significant policy work.
“That’s not a path we’re heading down,” Bezek said. “We need to let the dust settle and figure out what’s best for kids and staff.” The intercom and buzzer system is something that can be instituted rather easily.
Otsego was chosen first for several reasons, including the fact that the Wright County schools have some experience with these systems.
Cameras will help school staff monitor visitors and their movement once inside the doors. In the past visitors were asked to come to the front office upon entering the school, but school staff admit it would have been easy for someone to enter the school, take a quick left-hand turn and have access to student classrooms without anyone knowing it.
Evenson was one of the parents who voiced her concerns with this after the Sandy Hook incident.
“There was nothing to slow you down if you didn’t go to the office,” Evenson said.
Now there’s the security system with video and audio as well as movie theater-style barricades at the front of the school just beyond the main office entrance.
“They just guide you in,” Talley said.
And the main doors lock to keep the next visitor from walking in. In the first couple of weeks of the new system, people have been caught off guard. But even those who tug on all four doors figure out from the temporary signs that they need to locate the button and be let in.
“There’s a lot of buzz in the district,” Talley said. “There hasn’t been any push back.”
Talley says security has come a long way since she first entered the profession in 1982.
“Back then I don’t think they even cared about who picked up a child,” she said. “I don’t remember drills other than fire drills that people didn’t even take seriously.”
The school administrator says they have hundreds of visitors every day.
“But we know most them,” she said. “Whether its the UPS driver, Coborn’s or Sodexo or whatever. We still have a small-town feel. It still feels like a very safe community, but you don’t want to get lulled into that false sense of security.”