Parkland stirs local school safety fears

Camas, Washougal districts use bond money to upgrade campus security

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Odyssey Middle School Principal Aaron Smith demonstrates how the video monitoring system at Odyssey Middle School works on Tuesday, Feb. 20. All of the schools in the Camas School District, except Camas High, have a video and buzzer entry system.

Valentine’s Day started out on a happy note for Camas resident Swati Wilson. Like so many others, the Camas mother thought about spending time with her loved ones that day. But the Feb. 14 holiday quickly took a dark turn, after reports of a mass school shooting in Parkland, Florida started filtering out on social media sites and news stations. Wilson, whose son attends Camas High, said the news that 17 Florida high schoolers had been slaughtered by a 19-year-old armed with an assault rifle, hit her just as hard as the Sandy Hook shooting did in 2012, when 20 first-graders and six adults lost their lives inside another U.S. school.

As a parent, Wilson said, she immediately empathized with Florida parents who had lost children in the Feb. 14 Parkland shooting, and started to imagine these teens she had never met.

“I’m not a crier, but you just get to where you want to cry,” Wilson said of her reaction to hearing about the Feb. 14 school shooting. “Your heart races and you get so anxious and at the very same time, you’re also now thinking of your kid.”

In the days following the shooting, Wilson said she has felt heightened anxiety and even rearranged her schedule to talk to other local parents and the Camas School District superintendent about her concerns.

The Camas mom wants to prevent something like the Parkland shooting from happening here.

“It just feels like we spin our wheels, because of the stuff that we seemingly can’t do anything about,” Wilson said. “So, I’m saying, ‘Why don’t we do anything about the things that we really can and narrow it down to our schools, to what can we do to deter (a shooting)?'”

Wilson would like to see a video system installed at Camas High’s main office, so that visitors would need to ring a buzzer and be seen by office staff before being allowed into the high school.

Camas High is the only school in the district that does not have a video entrance system, Steven Marshall, director of educational resources for the district, said.

The high school has about 80 security cameras that are monitored for most of the day by the campus security. But, Marshall said, the volume of people entering the school would make video-entry difficult.

“The main office is also a revolving door for district support staff, part-time and itinerant staff, college and career recruiters, community volunteers and guest teachers … everyday,” Marshall said. “It has been determined that our main office staff cannot perform all of their duties and buzz in hundreds of people per day.”

School secretaries at Camas schools do, however, have a lockdown button that can instantly secure the school, Marshall said, as well as a panic button. Both send immediate alerts to emergency responders.

Unlike other schools in the district, Camas High has security personnel and a school resource officer who is on campus daily.

Wilson, the concerned Camas mother, said she also wants metal detectors installed at Camas High.

Wilson was in and out of schools in the Saint Louis School District in Missouri that have metal detectors and security guards as a standard operating procedure, she said. At the time, Wilson was a  Educational Publishing Rep, a job that required her to visit these schools frequently to meet with principals, teachers and committee members.

“I did it walking in and out of (Missouri) schools and I was happy to do it because I knew what it was for,” Wilson said of going through a metal detector at school. “Big deal, if we’re going to make kids wait a little bit.”

“I do want these things to make things more secure,” Wilson said. “At least, start with the buzzer, get that in, and then the metal detector. I want to see … that getting planned.”

Wilson said that she understands why the district does not have these protocols at the high school, and that she recognizes the complications, but that she doesn’t buy district leaders’ stance that they can’t find a way to make it work.

“If it’s logistics, you work it out,” Wilson said. “If it’s funding, I believe Camas has it.”

Wilson said she has spoken to many community members and other parents about the issue through social media, and is interested in creating a “100 Women Who Care” group that could help raise funds for safety measures and attend city council and school board meetings to advocate for better prevention at Camas-area schools.

“I feel I’ve said ‘yes’ to bonds and levies, and that the money is there,” Wilson said of funding safety measures at schools. “Our property taxes are high, and they’re about to go up even more. … We have to work it all out.”

School district leaders have already been thinking about safety and preventing things like school shootings. In the past three years, both local school districts passed bonds that included funding for upgraded safety measures in local schools. The following is a look at what’s being done in Camas and Washougal schools.

Camas School District safety improvements

In 2016, voters passed a $119.7 million bond that allowed the district to build Discovery High School, Lacamas Lake Elementary and Odyssey Middle School. The bond money was also used to improve safety measures at Camas’ schools.

Heidi Rosenberg, director of capital programs for the Camas School District, said that one of the key goals of the 2016 bond was to improve student safety and security and to provide consistency among the district’s buildings.

The district is using the bond money to standardize school entry systems and electronic access, install main-entry video surveillance and intercom systems, improve exterior lighting and add fencing on several outdoor play areas.

Main entries at Liberty Middle School and Skyridge Middle School now have vestibules — a contained area that has an exterior door on one wall and an internal door/entrance on another wall, which adds to the security at the schools’ main entrance point. The vestibule at Liberty cost $127,000 and costs $85,000 at Skyridge.

Marshall said most of the district’s schools now have a vestibule, with the exception of Lacamas Heights Elementary, which will be replaced by Lacamas Lake Elementary in the fall of 2018.

The district spent $50,000 to install entrance-control devices at all schools except Camas High. That cost did not include the cameras, which Rosenberg said came out of a separate technology fund,.

Following the Parkland shooting, Camas School District Superintendent Jeff Snell and Marshall emailed a letter to families, explaining the district’s safety resources and procedures.

The letter outlined things like the district’s school resource officer — a Camas police officer who is based at Camas High but monitors and visits all of Camas’ schools — and the fact that visitors to Camas schools must come through one entrance, which is locked once school begins, the doors wired to a centralized lockdown control, which gives staff the ability to secure the campus in an instant.

“CSD schools routinely practice, review and improve their safety procedures,” according to the letter sent to families. “Building leaders receive monthly training and partner with the Camas Police Department to work through different scenarios so we are ready for any possible emergency. Every campus conducts monthly drills to practice their response to the following situations: Evacuation, Earthquake, Shelter-in-Place and Internal and External Lockdown.”

In an internal lockdown, the electronic clocks display text messages and play pre-recorded instructions, Marshall said. School personnel need to separately push a panic button, which notifies emergency responders or calls 911.

In an external lockdown, the exterior doors are locked and emergency responders are automatically notified.

The district states that they also do more to support safety in their programs and on campus, including fire inspections, facility repairs and maintenance, counseling and nursing services and annual employee safety trainings.

The district also has a Camas Wellness Strategy in place to give students, parents and staff social-emotional support after events like the Parkland shooting.

Safety in the Washougal School District

Voters in the Washougal School District passed a $57 million capital improvement bond in 2015 to address safety, student capacity and facility needs at Washougal’s schools.

The district allocated $47 million to build the new Columbia River Gorge Elementary and Jemtegaard Middle schools, $4.8 million to build Excelsior High and $1.2 million for safety and security remodels and upgrades.

Washougal School District Superintendent Mike Stromme said the $1.2 million paid for the remodel of entryways into Cape Horn Elementary, Cannon Creek Middle School, Gause Elementary, Hathaway Elementary and Washougal High School.

The remodels created a vestibule and single-point entry at the schools, meaning visitors have to be buzzed into the buildings after school has begun, Stromme said.

Washougal High also partners with the Washougal Police Department to have a school resource officer on site. Although the officer is primarily stationed at the high school, he also acts as a first responder for neighboring schools.

“A resource officer is also someone who builds relationships with staff and students,” Stromme said. “Their intent is to be a deterrent.”

The high school also has district security personnel to help safeguard the building and students.

Administrators from both Camas and Washougal school districts attend a annual school safety summit in the summer months, where they work with emergency services and Clark County law enforcement agencies to learn about best practices in school safety.

Stromme added that the Washougal district also has invested in counselors, psychologists and mental health counselors, who work with students and families on emotional needs. These resources are available to students through their school, Stromme said.