Keeping kids safe has rocketed up the South Whidbey School District’s priorities in recent months.
Installing a dependable new phone system is in the near future for the schools. Electronically controlled front doors may come to the district’s four school buildings. Langley Police Department officers may regularly visit the schools this spring, with emphasis on a new-hire acting as a resource officer.
“We’re looking at how we can bolster our security,” said Dan Poolman, the district’s assistant superintendent.
“It would give us the control of having doors locked and buzzing (visitors) in, or having them open and locking with a keystroke.”
The changes were first proposed by district leaders after the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School. An adult killed 26 people — 20 students and six staff — after he shot his way through the locked front doors.
“We always want to say it can’t happen here, but that’s what every school district says,” said Steve Scoles, the school board chairman.
The security conversation has continued. Fresh off a pair of levy approvals, the district will tweak its increased budget to find money for the improvements. District officials have met with Whidbey Telecom about electronically controlled main doors and are seeking bids for a phone system, estimated at $200,000.
Hoping to avoid any type of intrusion, South Whidbey schools has a lockdown procedure that is practiced regularly. Where students would be relocated, if possible, in an emergency is a secret known to only a few in the district and Whidbey Island law enforcement.
Keeping an intruder out of the school buildings is the first priority for safety. The schools are supposed to have doors, except the main entrance, locked to the outside. At a campus like Langley Middle School, which has three separate buildings used by students, side doors are often left unlocked.
“Because we have these smaller schools, it’s an advantage for our staff to recognize someone who isn’t supposed to be there,” Scoles said.
“Even a kid will see a teenager on campus that doesn’t belong there and they’re aware of that.”
After a few decades of circulating keys, Moccia had concerns that the schools’ security was compromised. The district considered a keyless entry system which would allow district administration to monitor who enters which building and when. Doors would automatically lock, too. It was bumped down the district’s extensive work list because it was deemed too expense, however.
Having the Langley Police Department down the street is a benefit, too.
Soon, the schools will be visited by a resource officer once the department hires its fourth officer. Part of the new hire’s duties include working with the schools, primarily Langley Middle School and South Whidbey High School. As a resource officer — a term that denotes their use as a resource, not just security — the law enforcement professional will work with school staff, parents and students.
“I made her the promise we’d try,” said Randy Heston, Langley’s police chief, of an earlier conversation with Superintendent Jo Moccia about placing an officer in the school system. The officer will be entirely funded by the City of Langley, not by the school district.
“After a year or two if it, we’ll blend right into the schools.”
When the city posted the job description, the officer’s duties within the school district were stated. The specifics, however, were not yet defined between Heston and Moccia. Heston said the officer would visit schools as soon as May, spending about eight hours at the middle school and eight hours at the high school.
“It forms a relationship,” Heston said. “It’s a small community, we all go to the same events, the same places.”
Communicating an emergency from the district office on Maxwelton Road to the schools was the reason a new phone system leapfrogged other projects on the district’s work list. A recent incident in which a message to the high school’s phone system was not received until three days later spurred the district to replace its 25-year-old phone line.
“Our highest priority is student safety,” Scoles said. “And if that helps, it moves right up the list.”