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Posted February 6, 2013 | comments Leave a comment

Shenandoah County School Board prioritizes safety initiatives

By Kim Walter

WOODSTOCK -- After hearing a variety of options to improve school safety in the division, Shenandoah County School Board members came up with a preliminary plan Wednesday night to start the process.

The School Board met in Central High School's gym for a work session on what security initiatives needed to take place immediately, and which ones could fit into a more long-term plan. The work session came as a result of three public school safety forums which took place in January.

Superintendent B. Keith Rowland presented his findings from the forums, including immediate and long-term changes that parents and community members supported, as well as estimated costs.

Rowland said the No. 1 thing that stood out both at the forums and in messages from parents was the need for a school resource officer at each of the county's 10 schools. Currently, six are staffed full-time.

Filling four more positions could cost around $300,000, according to estimates from Sheriff Timothy Carter -- a cost that would be recurring each year. The school system would not be responsible for funding the positions, but all School Board members agreed to support it.

There are SROs in each building now, but the fix is temporary, Rowland reminded the board.

"I will say that the panic level in the community has gone done since the SROs have been there," he said.

Rowland continued to list changes that could happen sooner rather than later, which included architectural changes to the front entrance of almost all schools, video intercom systems, locking and securing all exterior doors and bullet-proof glazing for front doors and windows.

"This is where you're going to have to make some tough decisions," he told the board.

Panic alarms were also mentioned and could be installed at the desk of administrative personnel. Rowland also described a simple School Safe Lock, which would make it easier for teachers to lock their classroom door from the inside, both quickly and effectively.

"During the forums it was also brought up that we should consult a professional to tell us what we need and what we don't," he said. "Well, I know Roanoke did that for their schools, and it cost them about $200,000."

Long-range plans, Rowland said, could include bullet proof locks that utilize a card-key system, surveillance cameras throughout the interior and exterior of a school, GPS devices on buses, updated school intercom systems, and concrete boxes to be placed outside of school entrances to prevent a vehicle from crashing through the front door.

Before the board started prioritizing, board member Kathryn Holsinger asked Rowland for cost estimates for the safety options.

"I didn't want your decisions to be based on the cost," Rowland said.

"I'm not opposed to anything on these lists, really, but we need to make an educated decision when it comes to budgeting for things," Holsinger said. "As a county, we cannot afford to lose another teacher because of a budget item. We have to be responsible in what we ask for."

The immediate changes that the School Board chose to support are: SROs in every school; architectural changes which include magnetized doors, video intercoms and bullet proof glazing; School Safe Lock for interior classroom doors; panic alarms; and the ability for SROs to communicate directly with school staff.

The board also decided to put some items on a "one-year plan." The items will be up for discussion and further research over the next year, but none of the changes are definitely going to take place.

In no order, over the next year the board plans to look at: surveillance cameras at main entrances, enlisting school safety officers, alarms on each exterior door, facilitating communication between office staff and teachers when classes are taken outside, and the installation of gates or doors to secure instructional areas after school hours.

Board member Richard Koontz suggested that the school board's Capital Improvements Plan be reevaluated, as some items in that plan are now part of the school safety discussion.

"I think some of these items need to happen sooner," he said. The board decided to reevaluate the plan during its next regular meeting.

After estimating costs for all the changes, board members realized they'd need close to, if not more than, $1 million in funding to cover immediate and long-term safety initiatives.

Jim Scholten, an employee of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, has been volunteering his time and expertise to help Rowland and other school officials develop the list of safety initiatives. He's also brought forth ideas that could save the school system money.

Toward the end of the meeting, Scholten asked when an update to school buses would take place, as far as installing a GPS and updated radio system in each.

"The reason I ask is there were 11 incidents last year on school buses, and five of them involved shots being fired," he said. "I hate to say it, but the more we lock down and secure our schools, the more we have to realize that school buses will be the next target for someone who wants to do something bad."

Scholten has a child in the school system, and said he's happy to lend his services if it means results will come of it.

On Tuesday, the School Board and Board of Supervisors will hold a joint work session to go over school safety priorities, as well as funding options. The meeting will be held at 6 p.m. in the county board room instead of Central High School's gym, as was previously scheduled.

Contact staff writer Kim Walter at 540-465-5137 ext. 191, or kwalter@nvdaily.com


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