Utah schools more 'security conscious'
Last school year, a Jordan School District student approached another student with a gun and threatened to blow off his head unless the kid gave him gum.
The weapon was only a realistic-looking squirt gun, but the "armed" student was suspended for 45 days, said Larry Urry, a Jordan staff assistant in the office of compliance and special programs.
"Something like that puts kids in fear of their lives," Urry said. "You don't do that kind of thing."
It's the kind of thing, however, that happens more often than some might think in Utah schools. That's why some of the state's largest school districts, which resume classes this week, are working this year on both old and new security measures - ranging from door-locking systems, to cameras, to police officers - to keep schools safe.
Utah schools reported 654 incidents of weapon possession and 1,400 incidents of drug and alcohol abuse during the 2006-07 school year, the latest year for which numbers are available.
Granite and Jordan district officials said the weapons are often knives and fake guns. The drugs are largely alcohol, tobacco and marijuana.
Most students don't want to be around such things at school, said Clay Pearce, Granite assistant director of student services.
"They want their schools to be safe and places to learn," Pearce said.
To make their schools safer, Jordan and Granite are improving security.
Jordan expects to finish installing card-access systems - where certain doors can only be opened with security cards - in all of its schools by the start of 2009. That means all school visitors will have to enter through front entrances. All other school doors will be permanently locked from the outside except for some accessible only with the security cards, said Scott Thomas, a Jordan auxiliary services staff assistant. Jordan also will have video cameras monitoring all schools' front entrances. The cameras will feed into monitors set up in schools' front offices, Thomas said.
"It's just the world we live in," Thomas said. "Everybody's being more security conscious."
Granite expects to have card access systems in all elementary schools by early 2009, said Randy Johnson, chief of the Granite School District Police Department. All the district's high schools and junior highs have video monitors, and several elementary schools have them, Johnson said. Salt Lake City School District's schools already have video cameras, said Jason OlsenÂ, district spokesman.
"It would be nice if elementary schools were really open to the public, but times have changed," Johnson said.
Johnson, who heads Granite's 17-member full-time force, said his department will stay busy this year. He said it will likely get more than 10,000 calls for service this year.
The Granite police respond to everything from theft to out-of-control students to weapons and look-alike weapons complaints. They also monitor schools at night to deter would-be vandals and other criminals.
"Our job is to locate, identify and mitigate any problems during the middle of the night so the kids never have to show up and go, 'Oh my gosh, this place of safety and refuge is not really a place of safety and refuge,' " Johnson said.
The district also works with local police departments who station police officers - also known as school resource officers - at schools. The Jordan and Salt Lake districts also have police officers in many of their schools.
"It shows students from an early age that police really are there as a service and an asset to our community," Thomas said. "They're not scary people."
Students who break the law at school might not only face legal repercussions, but they also could face school consequences.
Any student caught with a gun at school can't come back to school for a year, according to the federal Gun-Free Schools Act. But depending on the situation, students and parents can often appeal to district committees, as happened in the case of the boy who brought the squirt gun to school.
"We try to look at the intent," Pearce said.
For example, when a student made threats with a real gun and a real knife at a Jordan School District high school last school year, that student was suspended for the full 180 days, Urry said.
But Granite and Jordan officials said that type of incident is relatively rare.
"I don't know if there's a way to ever really completely bulletproof a school from everything," Thomas said. "But [it's important] to be proactive and protect the public and create a sense of responsibility among everybody."
In The Mix
Back-to-school stories in The Mix section this week offer help for parents and students, including:
* Monday: Tips from teachers and principals on helping students succeed.
* Tuesday: How parents can check up on kids from cyberspace.
* Wednesday: Tips on nutrition and hydration for student-athletes.
* Thursday: Rest and relaxation opportunities while studying the three R's.
* Friday: High school seniors' tips on the social scene.
* Saturday in Faith: Dating outside the religious fold.