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District Offers Security Lessons

James Logan High School, located in the San Francisco Bay Area, spans a large city block and has about 4,000 students attending its classes. Earlier in the year, some of those students made news—two for organizing a fundraiser for disaster relief in China and one for being among the winners of a national scholarship award program. That’s the way schools hope their students make headlines. Unfortunately, another Logan student, 14-year-old Vernon Eddins, also made the news late last year—in that case, it was because he had become the latest victim of gang violence, which has been growing in Union City, where Logan is located.

Although the fatal shooting of Eddins did not occur at Logan, it gave impetus to discussions already underway at the district level for improving security at the school, which is the main high school in the New Haven Unified School District. And while the initial plan—pushed by parents and some staff members—was a modest proposal to put up some parking lot surveillance cameras, the district decided instead to take a much more comprehensive approach. The way the district carried out the project offers lessons for schools nationwide.

Assessing Needs

Rather than simply putting up cameras in response to parental concerns without clearly assessing additional security needs, the district brought in a team from Bradenton, Florida-based GE Security to conduct a thorough security assessment of the high school. 

Raymond Lauk, a former school superintendent who is now the education solutions manager at GE, and Paul Baratta, a former chief of police and director of public safety who is a senior security consultant at GE, were charged with conducting the assessment, which took about three days. The team focused on environment, access, detection, response, and the security culture. They began their work by interviewing key district officials and certain staff members at the high school.

“The overall purpose is to develop an assessment of the people, issues, all of the process issues, which we define as procedures and policies, and all the technology issues at the school,” says Lauk.

Lauk and Baratta walked the campus day and night, looking for issues such as how well-lit the campus was. Another important aspect of the audit was to talk to the students. “We want to get the students’ perspective on safety and security—what’s important for them,” says Baratta. They also wanted to collect data about use, such as what times students showed up in the morning. 

Eye-opening results. The results of the audit were “eye-opening,” says Carol Gregorich, the school district’s chief business officer.

Poor controls. One of the major findings was that, although the school claimed to have a closed campus, access controls were weak to nonexistent. The school was closed in the sense that students were technically not allowed to leave for lunch and other errands, but the campus was quite open in the sense that anyone who wanted to get on campus could do so.

Some of that had to do with the sheer size of the campus, which Gregorich compares to a junior college. There were 32 entry points onto the campus, which contained several one and two story buildings, as well as various fields, a swimming pool, and other structures. 

The number of ways onto and off campus created a problem as did the fact that students had to constantly move among the buildings to change classes.

“You try to secure your school the best you can, and the best way to do that is lock it down,” says Mark Weimerskirch, of San Jose, California-headquartered TAL Global, who consults with New Haven. He adds, “When you get to the junior high, and especially the senior high level, when you’ve got kids going between buildings and classes, it makes it very difficult.”

The solution at Logan was to close down all but four gates onto campus. The four main entrances are monitored by staff members who require that anyone entering or leaving show an identification card.

The locking down of nonessential doors greatly improved access controls. But the audit also found that the presence of an independent study program on campus presented another obstacle to the ability to monitor who was on campus, according to Gregorich. It meant that students were entering and leaving campus at all hours, and it was harder to get a handle on who belonged. The school district decided to move that program to another smaller site where it would be easier to keep track of the students.

False alarms. Another problem uncovered during the audit was the high number of false alarms. Gregorich says the district was not aware of how much of a problem false alarms had become.

 The issue arose because teachers were coming in on breaks or during the summer to retrieve items from their classrooms. That would trip the alarms, and building personnel and police would have to respond.

“People weren’t thinking,” says Gregorich. To solve the problem, the school now requires that teachers turn in keys before extended breaks. That way, they can’t decide “to come down to get that book in their classroom,” setting off the alarm, Gregorich says.

Another issue with the alarms was that, due to the custodial hours and the heavy use of the campus buildings, alarms and motion detectors would not be turned on until 3 a.m., and then they’d be turned off at 6 a.m. when staff and students started to arrive at school. Now, the school district has amended some of the hours of the facilities staff so that the alarms can be turned on at midnight. Additionally, the school plans on setting up zones in the alarm system so that alarms and motion sensors can be turned on even earlier in areas of the campus that are not used at night.

ID card enforcement. Logan High School has had an identification card system in place for years. The trouble was, no one was enforcing it. Many students had lost their cards, and no one was checking to see if students had cards with them when they entered or exited campus.

This was another eye-opener from the security audit. Gregorich says the district found it illuminating “that our students were not carrying their identification cards, because it was so built into the system, we just assumed.”

Such issues are not that unusual at schools, say Lauk and Baratta. Policies and programs get set up, then gradually stop being followed properly.

Logan’s days of not enforcing the identification system are gone. The school has since provided new cards for the students and staff members who had lost them, and now everyone who enters or leaves campus must show identification.

The school-issued ID cards include the following information: a photograph, the student or staff member’s name, the school name, an identification number, and the school year. Additionally, there are special stickers on the cards of students who are leaving campus for portions of the day as part of the district’s regional occupation (vocational) program.

Visitors must go to the administrative office to secure a temporary card. Gregorich says that in the future, the school may look into purchasing a machine that scans visitor identification, such as a driver’s license, to vet visitors.

Poor maintenance. Lights are a major component of a school’s security, and the lack of lighting upkeep is an issue that Lauk and Baratta say they commonly encounter on their audits. Logan was no exception, according to Gregorich.

The audit found that lights on the Logan campus were scheduled to be repaired or replaced that were simply not receiving the attention they needed. It was in the custodian’s job description, says Gregorich, but “sometimes the custodians didn’t get to it, and we didn’t have a higher-level manager checking to make sure that they were following through. We are [doing that] now.”

Security staff problems. The security personnel staff at Logan High School includes a risk manager; two school resource officers (SROs); who are sworn police officers paid by Union City, campus security technicians, who are hired by the district for security monitoring; and administrators, such as principals.

The audit found that security staff were not performing their duties, according to Deputy City Manager Tony Acosta. He facilitates the city-school partnership committee, which holds meetings between city council members and school board members, and frequently tackles security issues. “When the auditors were there …they witnessed some of the school security staff actually going out and getting food for students, leaving their post, just sitting there not doing anything,” says Acosta. 

The assessment also found that SROs spent too much time in the office attending to paperwork and not enough time interacting with students and watching what was happening on campus, says Acosta.

“The point was that folks had gotten kind of casual about it. And that’s changing,” he says.

To solve the problems with security staff, says Gregorich, the assessment report recommended more training, especially for the SROs and campus security technicians. In response, Union City has offered to send SROs to designated training sessions.

The police department has agreed to put together a training program for campus security technicians and administrators, who were previously trained only by the school district. Union City Police Department Chief Greg Stewart told Security Management he expects that plan to be in place in time for the next school year, although the details of the training were not concrete as of press time.

Going Districtwide

While the district was happy with the audit of its one high school that GE Security conducted, Gregorich says that it cannot afford to have similar audits done for all its other schools. Instead, the district has hired TAL Global consultant Weimerskirch to help train district employees to conduct their own school security assessments. They’re funding this initiative in part by a Readiness and Emergency Management for Schools (REMS) grant the district received from the federal government. Weimerskirch says that he has seen similar initiatives nationwide for school district members to develop their own security skills.

“The Department of Education is looking for sustainability. They don’t want consultants to come in, do an assessment, and you never see us again,” says Weimerskirch. “They want us to train the schools to learn how to do them so they can continue to do them year in and year out.”

That way the schools themselves will have some great tools and techniques to use in the future, says Weimerskirch.

Weimerskirch will take the New Haven district’s security team on a walk-through of one of the middle schools, where he will teach them what to look for on their own assessments. He will also talk with them about how to assess policies.

To augment Weimerskirch’s training, Gregorich says that she, along with the district’s chief academic officer and the executive director of student services, has been attending workshops on school security, student behavior, and other security and emergency management-related topics. They are also working on a school security philosophy, which will serve as a template for security across the schools. The template will include everything from how to handle natural disasters to which radios the district schools should be using.

Gregorich says the district’s risk manager, Janice Chin, who has worked in healthcare and community coordination in the past, has already coordinated the emergency plans of the schools across the district. In order to do that, she not only assessed the emergency plans of the schools in the district, but she also made contact with other schools, in connection with the REMS grant, to see what worked for those districts.

Her team came up with a template of what must be present in each plan. Chin says that while sites all have unique challenges, needs, and hazards, there was “a cohesiveness that was needed throughout the district simply because staff are not just going to be working in isolation.” The template addresses both sides of that equation.

Additionally, the board voted that the school district should become National Incident Management System compliant, so every administrator, Gregorich included, has taken the Federal Emergency Management Agency classes on incident command centers and incident management, and it is being built into the school security philosophy.

The emergency management planning naturally feeds into overall security, says Gregorich. “It’s all integrated.”

Community Involvement

Youth crime and violence problems in Union City are not just a problem for the schools to try to solve on their own, of course. “It’s a parent problem. It’s a community problem. It’s everybody getting together to solve these issues,” explains Gregorich.

To that end, the city has been involved in formulating youth-violence-prevention strategies, along with the community and a group called Congregations Organizing for Renewal (COR) that has created a youth-violence coalition to address the  causes of shootings and violence.

The city has a public-safety parcel tax that property owners pay. Called Measure K, the tax was first passed in 2004. That tax is being reauthorized this year, and it now includes the allocation for $500,000 for youth services. That money would go in part to expand the intervention services unit. This unit offers counseling for at-risk youth or families in crisis.

The aim is to help 50 percent more people with the fund increase, says Acosta. The money will also go to a family therapy project that will include parents. “It’s not just the kids that are an issue, it’s their families and their parents, or the lack thereof, that are really the core issue,” he says.

“Gangs are surrogate families. There’s been a lot of research done about that, and they provide a rather perverse and pernicious family structure,” notes Acosta. The program’s goal is to see that the real family doesn’t crumble and force kids to turn to the substitution the gangs offer. Additionally, the funds will likely support a resource center, and the city is negotiating with the school district to use some of the school’s sites for the city’s counseling services, he says.

Union City is also hoping to fund a program for crime-data analysis that would yield statistics on who is perpetrating the crimes and when and where they occur.

There is a police component to Measure K as well. Acosta says that those funds will be used to add school resource officers to the middle schools. Currently, Logan is the only school with them. But it’s important to intervene with at-risk children earlier than high school. “A lot of the stuff that blossoms at Logan actually starts in the middle schools…the gang affiliations really get going,” says Acosta.

There are other ways the district works to prevent violence. The New Haven school district has a self-esteem program that has been in place for years. It helps students to respect themselves and each other as a way of avoiding some of the anger issues that can lead to violence. 

Of the recommendations in GE Security’s assessment, some have been implemented and others will likely be rolled out for the next school year. As might be expected, there were some complaints from students about the increase in security. The James Logan Courier, the school’s student newspaper, reported that some students dressed in striped clothing to signify that they were inmates. There were also reports of signs and graffiti equating the school with a prison.

Most students, however, have taken the security changes well, says Gregorich. That’s important, because “everybody needs to be a part of the philosophy of security. Everybody has a role,” she says. “And it’s not enough to just tell the students, these are the rules. The students need to be empowered.”

Laura Spadanuta is an assistant editor at Security Management.