After two of the most horrific school shootings in the nation’s history, there’s been near-constant debate this year over what can be done to protect classrooms and prevent future attacks.
Should schools hire more police officers? Should teachers carry concealed guns? Should students walk through metal detectors?
Here in Utah, a statewide school safety commission studied the issue, and Gov. Gary Herbert says he’ll make it a priority in his next budget.
But administrators in a handful of Utah districts took their own steps to bolster security in reaction to the mass shootings in Parkland, Fla., and Santa Fe, Texas, even as broader conversations in the state continue to unfold.
“We have a lot to do,” said Terryl Warner, a member of the Utah Board of Education and the Utah School Safety Commission. “I think we have a long way to go on school safety, but we have some partnerships that are becoming really, really strong.”
Here are three things districts in the Salt Lake Valley have done in 2018:
1. Training, training and more training — with some focus on mental health
Jordan School District paid its teachers to come in a day before classes started this year to receive extra training.
For half the day, they learned about school safety, what the district’s protocols are and how to treat a gunshot victim. For the other half, they talked about mental health, suicide prevention and bullying.
“You can’t teach kids if they’re not safe either emotionally or physically,” said school board President Janice Voorhies.
Voorhies said the district has a two-pronged approach: thoroughly train educators on how to respond to an emergency but also look for warning signs in students that, if properly addressed, might prevent one.
Training is the biggest part of Jordan School District’s safety plan. And the board spent $1 million to pay teachers to come in for the day. Rather than significantly altering its buildings to stop an intruder, Voorhies added, “we decided to take a progressive approach.”
For schools across the state, training and drills are major components of emergency preparedness. They are largely the least expensive options — but they could also translate to a more streamlined response if an attack were to happen.
Granite School District, which has its own police force of 22 armed officers, trained staffers this year on the “Run, Hide, Fight” method. The model teaches individuals that in an emergency, if at all practical, try fleeing via escape routes planned out ahead of time. If it’s not possible to get out safely, the next best thing to do is hide and try to barricade inside a room. The third and last approach would be to fight off an assailant.
The district spent $35,000 in addition to that for a team of consultants to visit all of its schools and develop individualized strategies for each building so teachers “aren’t just reliant on a broad, ambiguous plan,” said spokesman Ben Horsley.
Similar to Granite, Canyons School District has trained its teachers on the E.S.C.A.P.E. plan (escape, secure, conceal, attack, process, evaluate). But like Jordan, it’s coupling the reactive trainings with an emphasis on mental health awareness.
“Our aim here,” spokesman Jeff Haney said, “is just to enhance the already-safe environments that we have at our schools.”
Canyons and Jordan have counselors in every school to talk to students dealing with depression and anxiety. They train teachers to recognize when a kid might be at risk of causing harm to others (that could include behaviors such as withdrawing or searching for guns on a school computer).
Chelsie Acosta, a teacher and member of the Utah Education Association’s Ethnic Minority Affairs Committee, likes that “less-paranoid approach.”
“I would say I’m definitely against all those crazy measures of adding metal detectors and more police in a building,” she said. “It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be on our A game. But what we should be doing is watching for students who have experienced trauma or have a loner mentality.”
Though funding is often tight for counseling, Acosta believes the best approach to school safety is giving students an outlet to process their emotions or explore what’s going on at home by talking it out.
2. Redesigning school buildings — particularly safeguarding front entrances
Before classes started this week, Salt Lake City School District installed a security camera and a doorbell outside the front doors at each of its elementary and middle schools.
Visitors who want to come inside will have to ring the bell and go through a quick screening before they will be buzzed in by the secretary in the front office. All other side doors at the schools are locked.
“It might delay entry by a minute or two,” district spokeswoman Yándary Chatwin said, “but it’s one small step we know we can take to be proactive in keeping our students and staff safe.”
The systems cost $3,000 each and were placed at 32 buildings. They will not be put in the high schools, Chatwin said, because those are open campuses with students leaving for lunch, internships and technical programs. School resource officers, however, are assigned to watch over those entries and exits.
Canyons and Granite, too, have redesigned the entries to some of their schools so that guests can enter a building but can’t access any classrooms until they’ve checked in at the front office. They’re blocked off into a little lobby.
“The aim is to make sure every visitor is monitored and we know why everyone is coming into the school,” said Haney, spokesman for Canyons. “It serves as a stopping point.”
Those new “vestibule” designs, Haney added, are in place at all elementary schools in the district and six of the eight middle schools (the other two are in the works, along with plans to add them to the five high schools, as well). They’ve cost between $50,000 and $300,000 to create — covered by bond money — depending on how old the school is and how much construction is needed to retrofit the layout and block off hallways.
In Granite, guests must present an ID and go through a brief background check, which can identify basic criminal history and sex offender status, before they move beyond the front office. The district is about two-thirds of the way done with safeguarding its 62 elementary school front entrances with this setup, prioritizing those in neighborhoods with higher crime rates.
The district is using tax money to pay for the updates and completes anywhere from 12 to 20 per year with the funds. It intends to be finished with the project by 2020.
“Those kind of things are just not instantaneous,” Horsley, Granite’s spokesman, said. “I would hope that people can appreciate the fact that school safety is an ongoing process.”
3. Using a new app — which improves communication during emergencies
Principal Kiersten Draper piloted the DIR-S app (pronounced “duress”) at her elementary school last year, and now all faculty in Canyons School District will be trained to use the program.
“The app helps everybody to know about an emergency immediately,” Draper said, “so they’re not waiting for the intercom announcement or something more unfortunate,” such as gunshots.
DIR-S is a real-time app that can be downloaded on a smartphone, laptop or tablet. It’s set up for each school so that any staffer can report an emergency — whether that be a lost child, an earthquake or an active shooter — and where it’s happening in the building. All of a school’s employees can see the feed, as well as the district’s administration and local police agencies.
Officers get a better sense of where to respond first and teachers can add to an event to say whether their class is safe. The app has a “panic button” that does not create any sound, like calling 911 might, but alerts authorities that help is needed.
Draper, who oversees Canyon View Elementary, tested the program during emergency drills in the spring and is excited to see it deployed districtwide this fall. All employees, including janitorial staff and office workers, will have access to the app.
“One of the greatest things about this is the peace of mind it brings,” she said. “My teachers know that if there’s an emergency, they’ll know about it immediately. This way, communication is in our control.”
The Canyons Board of Education approved a contract for the app two weeks ago, designating $60,000 a year for the program. Salt Lake City School District is also training its staff to use it.
“A principal can call a lockdown through the app,” Chatwin explained, “and every teacher will receive a notification on their computer or phone.”
Correction: Chelsie Acosta is a member of the Utah Education Association’s Ethnic Minority Affairs Committee and a former member of the association's political action committee. A prior version of this story misstated those positions.