- Associated Press - Monday, April 20, 2015

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) - If you walk up to a school in the Bismarck-Mandan area, chances are you can’t open the door and wander around inside without someone noticing.

At least, that’s the goal school administrators say they hope to achieve as they shell out hundreds of thousands of dollars in security upgrades.

Mandan Middle School was early to the game.

Since its opening in 2008, students have entered the school every morning through the front entrance. Two sets of doors greet them, the second of which locks after classes start.

Should a staff member need to get inside during the day, he or she can hold up the card they carry around their neck to a sensor attached to the locked door.

Visitors funnel through the office, where they must sign in before they can access the rest of the school.

“With 800 students in this building, you can imagine the parent flow we have in here,” said Ryan Lagasse, facilities and transportation director for Mandan Public Schools, as he sat inside the main office near the desk where visitors register. “It’s nice to be able to track who’s coming in and out of the building.”

Other facilities in the school district are playing catch up.

The school board in February approved paying $345,000 to install keyless entrances at the remaining buildings. That’s in addition to the $100,000 that’s being spent on improved security cameras to monitor school grounds, Lagasse said.

Bismarck Public Schools has implemented similar secure entrances at its buildings over the past few years. Like in Mandan, the Bismarck School Board in February awarded a $165,000 bid to finish the effort at several remaining schools.

The timing is no coincidence. The 2013 state legislature designated $3 million to the Department of Public Instruction for improving school safety throughout the state. Those who took advantage of that matching grant money, such as the Bismarck and Mandan school districts, are spending it.

School officials in North Dakota say the 1999 Columbine shooting heightened their awareness of safety vulnerabilities. Their current efforts to make upgrades have become timelier in the wake of more recent school shootings and security threats.

“It’s not a matter of could it happen here, but when?” said Valerie Fischer, director of Safe & Healthy Schools for the Department of Public Instruction. “That’s the stuff that makes me wake up in a cold sweat saying, ‘Oh holy heck, what if?’”

While building upgrades aim to prevent those tragedies at schools in North Dakota, the state does not lead the pack in terms of safety.

“We’re probably weaker than most states when it comes to a lack of laws and legislation,” Fischer told the Bismarck Tribune (http://bit.ly/1aUZHzS ).

Some states require each school district to submit a security and crisis management plan to the state education department, she said. North Dakota lawmakers have not taken that step.

State law does require schools to hold emergency drills, including lockdowns. But no consequences have been established for schools that fail to meet this requirement, and DPI does not keep track of whether schools fulfill it, Fischer said.

That doesn’t necessarily mean schools here lack adequate security. North Dakota holds the tenet of local control in high regard, Fischer said. The state leaves it to individual school districts to make the best decisions for keeping students and staff safe.

States with large metropolitan centers tend to have the most security features in schools, Fischer said.

Some go so far as to install metal detectors, though school administrators in Bismarck and Mandan do not mention that possibility when they talk security.

“We’re trying to get to a day when all outside doors will be on card access,” said Darin Scherr, business and operations manager for Bismarck Public Schools.

Schools with keyless entries can control when cards are activated during the day and track whose card opened a door.

With standard keys, a school would have to change locks and reissue keys to all employees if it wanted to minimize risks from a lost key, Scherr said.

Schools in urban parts of North Dakota tend to be better equipped with resources to make facility upgrades and work with law enforcement, Fischer said.

Small towns are not left entirely in the dust. Some rural schools have asked for newly offered safety assessments.

The superintendent in Enderlin, a small town known as a train hub in southeastern North Dakota, worries about tank cars carrying Bakken crude.

The school building, which serves 319 students, sits three blocks from the railroad tracks.

“There’s more of a focus on the amount of train traffic,” Tom Rettig said. “The hazmat spills seem to be more of a possibility.”

The Enderlin school received a visit in January by a man trained in safety planning. He met with the superintendent and local fire chief, sheriff and emergency manager.

They hit on concerns over oil spills as they discussed the school’s emergency operations plans.

“Usually the hazardous materials stay low to the ground, so we’d move up a floor,” Rettig said. “But then the fire department would have trouble moving students.”

Fifteen North Dakotans - mainly retired law enforcement officers and people who worked in the security industry - received emergency operations planning training under a $250,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Education. DPI conducted the training with the Department of Homeland Security and the North Dakota Safety Council.

Those people will visit rural schools to raise awareness about security and safety concerns, including risks from highway traffic as well as grain elevators, which can explode given the wrong chemical reaction. They have gone to two schools so far, including Enderlin, and 12 other districts have scheduled assessments.

“In a small town, the school is often the hub,” Fischer said.

Some of the improvements suggested are as simple as making an announcement at a basketball game asking parents to make a plan with their kids regarding where to meet should they get separated by an unforeseen event such as a fire.

When tragedy strikes schools, it tends to serve as a wake-up call for other administrators, Fischer said.

She referenced Larimore, where a school bus collided with a train in January. The driver and a student on board died in the crash.

“I know in the back of their minds, (administrators) were thinking, ‘That could have been me,’” she said.

That accident raised questions for her about what would have happened had circumstances been different. If a bus crashed further out of town, could someone still have called 911 immediately? Would people have arrived at the scene as quickly to help?

It’s not just public school districts, such as Enderlin, Bismarck and Mandan, hopping on the safety bandwagon.

Enhanced security came along with the expansion at Shiloh Christian School. Students now enter the building through a single entrance locked during the school day, and new cameras monitor the campus. Large events at the athletic complex require hired security.

Just this year, private schools in Bismarck were designated school resource officers funded in part by a federal grant the city received. Resource officers are police officers who work at schools.

Administrators at Shiloh and the Light of Christ Catholic Schools of Excellence say the officer has been helpful. She rotates between schools, talking to students about safety and health issues, as well as evaluating the schools’ emergency plans.

“We’ve been blessed we haven’t had a major incident, but, if we do, we want to know how to respond,” Shiloh Superintendent Morgan Forness said.

Light of Christ President Gerald Vetter said he is also happy with the resource officer.

“Prior to that, we worked with them but we didn’t have our own go-to person,” he said of school resource officers.

Vetter added that the decision to require uniforms at St. Mary’s Central High School this year came with an additional bonus in terms of security.

“If there’s someone in the hall who is not a Light of Christ student, they are very easy to identify,” he said.

Though safety measures are largely left to schools’ discretion in North Dakota, government officials have made some strides.

The Bismarck City Commission passed an ordinance in February requiring all visitors at Bismarck’s public and private schools to check in with the main office.

“It really now allows some teeth into trespassing,” said Steve Neu, director of facilities and community programs at Shiloh. “You can be arrested for trespassing in schools.”

State lawmakers are weighing several bills regarding school safety. A measure to allow concealed carry on school grounds has passed the House and awaits a hearing in the Senate Education Committee. Legislators in the House nixed a proposal earlier this session to add more resource officers to North Dakota’s rural schools.

Like so many who work in government and education, Fischer says she feels a responsibility to keep each student safe.

“I’d probably fall apart if something happened in one of our schools,” she said.

___

Information from: Bismarck Tribune, http://www.bismarcktribune.com

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