Blair Oaks takes first step in increasing security

The Blair Oaks Board of Education on Tuesday approved spending up to $8,500 to install another layer of access-control — probably an electronic keycard reader and buzzer system — at the rear door of the elementary school building.

The decision is the first step in a trial installation to see if such a system might be feasible at other doors across the campus.

Like many school districts across the nation, Blair Oaks’ school leaders are grappling with how to make the campus safer for students and faculty. With 18 exterior doors at the high school alone — most of which remain locked all the time — it hasn’t been easy to find a workable solution.

“Every time you answer one question, you raise two new ones,” Superintendent Jim Jones lamented.

At Tuesday’s board meeting, Jones said the committee working on the topic hadn’t developed a final recommendation regarding how to handle building access. “Everything is on the table; nothing is off,” he said.

Part of the problem is that the Blair Oaks’ school district functions as a multi-building campus. Both students and faculty travel from one building to another regularly, making locking the doors a challenge.

During a 20-minute time span on Wednesday morning, dozens of people crossed the parking areas that separate the buildings. Band and vocal music students returned to their classes; a teacher hefted a large box of supplies up the elementary school stairs; a high-school A+ tutor entered the elementary to mentor younger kids; and industrial arts students walked in and out of the school’s shop building.

Jones said it’s feasible to lock the buildings all the time, but there are challenges to doing so.

“I’m not saying it can’t work. But we need to have some measures in place, if that’s the direction we go,” he said.

So far, the district has limited the points of public access to the buildings. For example, the middle school has five exterior entrances, but four operate as fire-safety exits only. A fifth door — to the school’s kitchen — accepts deliveries but remains locked.

At Tuesday’s board meeting, two schools of thought surfaced.

Brad Spicer, a professional security consultant and a member of the school board, seemed ready to move forward with a plan. He suggested a video call box — requiring visitors to look into a camera before being buzzed in by a secretary — might be a workable solution. He thought the committee process was taking too long.

“Death by committee isn’t the answer,” he said. “Tens of thousands of schools across the nation have handled this. I had hoped to see a recommendation so we could vote.”

Other board members were not quite ready to jump yet.

“We could do something that makes everyone feel better, but doesn’t keep our children safe,” said board member Tim Van Ronzelen.

Just locking the doors doesn’t solve every problem. Jones noted at the 1998 mass shooting in Jonesboro, Ark., two boys hid in nearby woodlands while they fired upon students at Westside Middle School. Four students and one teacher were killed and 10 injured. Jones said the students and faculty were lured outdoors by a false fire alarm, and the doors locked behind them.

Also, additional locks and access systems doesn’t prevent an intruder from just shooting through glass windows and doors. And administrators, even when they can identify a visitor, can’t always recognize if the person is suffering a mental health crisis.

Spicer conceded additional security won’t prevent every mishap, but it does give administrators more time to scramble. He said limiting building access “is a fundamental pillar of security.”

Board member Bill Duke questioned the sense of securing some doors, but leaving other areas — such as the district’s buses — unmonitored. “There needs to be some thought involved,” he said.

Duke and Van Ronzelen both raised concerns the district doesn’t have the staff to monitor every entrance and exit.

“Are our secretaries going to have to sit and buzz people in?” Van Ronzelen questioned.

Elementary School Principal Kimberly Rodriquez said the initial measure — to beef up security at the school’s rear entrance — would be workable for her staff. She was less certain her staff could respond in a timely manner if a similar system is installed at the front entrance.

“No one is saying leave the doors unlocked,” Van Ronzelen said.

But he questioned how adding additional electronic systems improves on the keys-and-locks that are in place now. “We need to have focus and direction,” he added.

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