Scottsdale school safety is thrust into the local spotlight

Desert Mountain High School students walked out of their classrooms Thursday, Feb. 22 to demonstrate their solidarity in mourning the tragic loss of life days earlier. (Submitted Photo/Maddie Kelly)

In the wake of a six-minute massacre on a Florida school campus killing 17 children, the Scottsdale Unified School District is taking steps to strengthen its security measures district-wide.

About 23,000 students attend one of Scottsdale Unified’s 29 campuses, and the priority of classroom safety was a topic of conversation at a February Scottsdale Unified School District Governing Board meeting.

The Governing Board has already approved several new security measures, including a button that would make the lockdown processes easier for employees and students in case of an emergency.

Board members, Director of Facilities Management Dennis Roehler and Chief Security Officer James Dorer recently met to share thoughts and ideas on potential district-wide measures that could include new classroom door locks and an emergency lockdown solution.

The discussion was Part Two of a safety and security update touching many of the district’s schools after district voters approved a $229 million bond in 2016.

On Wednesday, Feb. 14, 17 people died from a shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

An ongoing Washington Post analysis has found that more than 150,000 students attending at least 170 primary or secondary schools have experienced a school shooting on campus since the Columbine High School massacre in 1999, a Feb. 15 Washington Post Article stated.

The figure, which comes from a review of online archives, state and federal enrollment figures and news stories, is a conservative calculation and does not include dozens of suicides, accidents and after-school assaults that have also exposed youths to gunfire, the Post states.

Following the Parkland deaths, Desert Mountain High School student Maddie Kelly organized a noon walk-out to pay respects to the 17 students who died one week prior with a 17-minute moment of silence.

Junior Lily O’Brien, one of the few hundred students who participated in the walk-out, says she participated to express her opinions freely.

“I wanted to participate in the walk-out because I feel that as students, just developing our own beliefs about gun control and other political issues, we are often subject to criticism because of our age and education level,” Miss O’Brien said in a Feb. 22 emailed response to questions.

“This walk out allowed many of us to express our opinions freely. It’s my opinion that politicians have allowed every day citizens to obtain weapons originally meant for the military without regard to the safety of the general public. No teenaged kid should be able to buy an AR 15 legally.”

Desert Mountain walk-out

The Desert Mountain student walkout yielded a large turn-out that was calm and respectful, Miss O’Brien says.

Miss Kelly spoke about the tragedy and named the 17 victims, her classmate recounted, and gave out information to Tweet and email state representatives about gun control and school safety.

“After a shooting like the one in Florida, it’s a struggle to feel safe,” Miss O’Brien said.

“A couple of hours before the walk-out, today, a fire alarm went off. I knew it wasn’t a scheduled drill because the school staff already knew about the planned walk-out and it’s unlikely that the administration would be willing to take up any more class time.”

Miss O’brien says the alarm instantly upset her, and other students feel anxious since the most recent shooting, too, she noted.

“I instantly felt a sense of panic and started shaking and crying and I wasn’t the only one. Since the shooting in Florida last week, many of the students feel some anxiety,” she said. “We are lucky to have two armed officers ate our school but if a homicidal gunman showed up with an AR 15, I’m not sure how they could possible protect us all.”

The school conducts lock-down drills, but has never had a drill specifically for an active shooter situation, she said.

The evening prior, the five Scottsdale Unified School District high school principals sent a joint letter to parents about the planned walk-out.

“As you may already be aware, students at our SUSD high schools have been book for ways to express their sorrow over last week’s tragedy in Parkland, Florida,” the letter states. “Those students have been pro-active, working with their school administration on plans for peaceful and positive acts of support. We respect their efforts to gather for a short time during the school day.”

Desert Mountain’s walkout even yielded more than just a lesson in the First Amendment for Miss O’Brien, as she also learned she could pre-register to vote, she said.

“I hope that DMHS students realize that our voices really do matter and they will be heard if we use them by voting, speaking out and participating in peaceful protests like this one,” she said. “My history teacher, Mr. Peterson, suggested that those of us who aren’t 18 yet, pre-register to vote. I hadn’t even known that was an option before.”

Desert Mountain High School students walked out of their classrooms Thursday, Feb. 22 to demonstrate their solidarity in mourning the tragic loss of life days earlier. (Submitted Photo/Lily O’Brien)

Seconds count

One aspect of the $229 million bond passed by Scottsdale Unified School District voters in November 2016 was to upgrade safety and security measures.

This includes plans to install electronic marquee signs on every campus, security cameras and improve administration offices at some schools.

Mr. Dorer, the chief security officer, works with district officials and staff to ensure proposed plans meet safety needs.

He says school safety is a question he often gets asked about, but considers it positive because it keeps the issue in peoples’ minds.

“There is no one single item that creates a safe environment,” Mr. Dorer explained in a Feb. 13 emailed response to questions. “Safety is like a puzzle with many different pieces, and the more pieces you have working together, the clearer your overall picture becomes.”

The puzzle school districts officials are trying to put together includes creating one-entrance to the campus, and putting an emphasis on communication.

“The ability to communicate quickly throughout a school is critical during an emergency. Without information, people are not able to make appropriate decisions and respond,” Mr. Dorer said.

“That is why we are investing in an emergency lockdown solution that allows for front office and school administrators to immediately announce the need for a lockdown.”

The Sandy Hook shooting reportedly took less than five minutes for the shooter to kill 20 children and six school staff members.

“During something as significant as a school shooting, seconds count,” Mr. Dorer noted. “Once teachers are aware of the situation, they need to have the ability to lock their doors to keep their students safe, so having proper locking hardware is also an important piece.”

Converting classroom doors to have interior-locking handles is a priority for district officials, Superintendent Dr. Denise Birdwell noted at the meeting.

In addition, Mr. Roehler brought forward the idea of having push-locks on classroom doors.

“If you hear a shooting on a campus, your nerves get a little crazy; are you able to stick the key in the door and lock that door? Do you have the key?” Mr. Roehler explained in a hypothetical discussion on Feb. 8.

The quandary for Mr. Roehler was whether or not working locks should be replaced to provide a safer situation in case of an emergency.

Sandy Kravetz, one of the Governing Board members, thought the push-button locks made the most sense.

“The teacher will most likely be in the classroom during an emergency situation, but I can’t foresee every situation, and a child in a classroom can lock a door if all you have to do is push a button,” Ms. Kravetz said.

“I would not wish anything that’s been in the news on our district, but if this makes it easier, go ahead and put in those locks with the push buttons.”

A new push-button lockdown mechanism and district-wide lock-down system are in the works, Mr. Roehler noted.

“In the event of an intruder in the front office, an aggressive person — just something that doesn’t seem like it’s going to go well — imagine our school secretaries dialing the code and trying to announce a lockdown?” Mr. Roehler explained.

“So our solution was to put in these buttons that are integrated with the intercom. If there’s an event at the school, the secretary, front office staff feels threatened, they push this button, they go into lock down and lock themselves away.”

The program allows district officials to put schools into lockdown immediately should local police call SUSD with a situation near multiple schools.

“How nice it will be that James will be able to put four schools in lockdown together all at one time,” he said. “The mass notification server will have the ability to lock down one school, 10 schools, 30 schools, whatever the case may be at the district level. It will really manage and help the schools if they’re in a bad situation.”

Mr. Roehler says his team is installing the server at three schools a week, and estimates to be finished by mid-March.

The push-lock door handles will be installed in every classroom throughout the lifetime of the security upgrades.

During the Feb. 13 Governing Board meeting at Coronado High School, 7601 E. Virginia Ave., Mr. Roehler described updates to one of SUSD’s schools to improve safety.

Cheyenne Traditional School’s front office has been renovated in recent months to include glass barriers and automated locks.

“How are we going to make our buildings safe so people can’t just make their way onto the campus?

“We’re doing that for all eight rebuilds. We just finished over winter break, Cheyenne. The front office is amazing.”

Mr. Roehler says he heard criticisms from the community regarding the restrictiveness of the front office, but its function has improved.

“It looks great and it functions great,” he said. “We’ve added features to that front office in which all the doors lock with the push of a button, there’s glass that although some people think ‘it looks like a bank,’ it looks great.”

Mr. Roehler says the safety aspect in Cheyenne’s front office is top-knotch, noting that it includes security cameras and card-access.

Mr. Dorer says security needs to balance with the district’s desire to be friendly and open to parents. Ultimately, the only way onto the campus will be through the front office.

“Once school is in session, the front office should be the only entry point onto a campus,” Mr. Dorer explained.

“Mr. Dorer says school safety shifted when the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary happened.

“Within the last 10 years, the biggest change I have noticed stemmed from the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary. Prior to this tragic event, most people seemed to think school violence only happened at high schools. Sandy Hook made it clear that all levels of school need to be prepared and focus on student safety.”

No security measure is foolproof, Mr. Dorer says, but the continued efforts are helping the overall cause.

“Overall, the work we are doing will continue to add pieces to the security puzzle,” he said. “We know that nothing is foolproof, but we continue to improve and add layers of safety for our school communities.”

Northeast Valley News Services Editor Melissa Fittro can be e-mailed at mfittro@newszap.com or can be followed on Twitter at twitter.com/melissafittro.

You are encouraged to leave relevant comments but engaging in personal attacks, threats, online bullying or commercial spam will not be allowed. All comments should remain within the bounds of fair play and civility. (You can disagree with others courteously, without being disagreeable.) Feel free to express yourself but keep an open mind toward finding value in what others say. To report abuse or spam, click the X in the upper right corner of the comment box.