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School security after, and beyond, Newtown
School safety forum includes buses, bullying, electronics
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School security is an issue that arises every time there is a publicized incident at a school — most recently, the shootings at the elementary school in Newtown, Conn.

But school security goes beyond protecting students from gunmen. It is also a more difficult subject to deal with than preventing the last school tragedy.

The Platteville School District held a school security forum at Platteville High School Monday night, with school administrators and Platteville’s police chief and fire chief.

The longest amount of discussion during public comment was on the subject that takes up the largest chunk of principals’ disciplinary time, but doesn’t occur specifically at school — behavior on school buses, specifically the shuttle buses between schools.

School superintendent Connie Valenza said cameras have been added to some buses, and a staffer once rode home on the bus “that was particularly troublesome.”

Middle School principal Lisa Finnegan described the shuttle buses as “not ideal,” as “unstructured time when the driver is looking this way and all the action is behind him.”

One person asked about how much training the drivers, who are employees of Stratton Buses, get in security-related issues.

Valenza said the school district’s security policies have been most influenced by a June 2010 audit by the school district’s insurance company.

“We are not perfect — and I don’t think any district has the perfect setup — but we have an extensive program to deal with some of these issues,” said Valenza. “If you really start thinking about it, it can be a bit overwhelming.”

The school district’s four buildings with students — Neal Wilkins Early Learning Center, Westview Elementary School, Platteville Middle School and Platteville High School — have controlled access and a combined 131 security cameras. School staff now carry ID badges, and more scrutiny is being paid to visitors.

Valenza said school leadership has been meeting since Newtown to consider how to improve security, but will make no decisions before summer in order to not make heat-of-the-moment decisions.

“Any staff member is going to act in a way that they feel best protects students,” she said. “There was real recognition that we’re not going to be able to account for every possible scenario.”

School administrators are trying to incorporate more abstract security measures into the classroom, in such areas as bullying prevention.

“Kids are rarely without an adult with them because they’re just too little to travel by themselves,” said Neal Wilkins principal ReNah Reuter.

Reuter said a recent guidance class focused on what to do “in those scary situations, whether it’s weather-related, fire drills, or if there was a stranger in the building.” She said the lesson in each case was for students to “be good listeners and do what the adults tell them to do.”

Westview focuses on “protective behaviors” in its guidance classes, said principal Don Shaw — to “give them the skills they need to be as safe as possible.” Westview conducts a number of drills, including lockdown drills.

Platteville Middle School’s guidance classes focus on decision-making, problem-solving, and communication and technology, said Finnegan. “That’s where some of the issues arise with student issues,” she said.

Platteville High School principal Jeff Jacobson cited the “great police presence in the past few months.” He said the school tries to “create a relationship with the kids” to “help kids find a home at school so they feel that this really is their school. … We have 430 people who are in some way responsible for the safety of everyone else in this building.”

In the event of a school incident or at a place like a movie theater, he said, “at the high school level, students really do need to be able to protect themselves.”

Jacobson also illustrated the problem of managing an incident by noting that about 300 of his students have cellphones.

School security issues extend to computers. Activities director Alan Minter said the school district has filters on email and computers that notify administrators of use of “suspicious words,” even if for a school assignment.

One person at the forum asked whether metal bars should be installed across glass doors and windows.

“The reality is all our classrooms have windows in them,” said Valenza. “There is no scenario, short of creating a prison atmosphere, that we could create to prevent that kind of situation.”

Another person asked whether school personnel who have concealed-carry permits should be allowed to carry handguns in schools.

“One of the issues that came up was how do I feel about staff being armed … and does that create a safe situation or not,” said Valenza, who added after Newtown the district is “not making any drastic decisions that week, that month.”

Valenza said allowing concealed-carry would require a change in state law and new school district policy, making it “off the table from the immediate perspective right now.”

Police Chief Doug McKinley said the police’s role is “responding when we do have that terrible scenario,” but more often “responding on a daily basis to kids that are acting out, truancy, anything across the spectrum. … We can’t overreact and make school an armed camp with a guard at every door.”