School safety in Idaho: What's protecting our kids

Credit: Troy Colson/ KTVB

School safety in Idaho: What's protecting our kids

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by Doug Petcash

Bio | Email | Follow: @DougPetcashKTVB

KTVB.COM

Posted on February 26, 2013 at 11:38 PM

Updated Sunday, Nov 24 at 7:48 PM

BOISE -- On December 14th, six adults and 20 little kids were gunned down at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.

The massacre sent ripples of revulsion, sadness and outrage across the country.  After all, just about every town has at least one school. Could it happen here? 

It's a question a lot of people are asking. That includes those in the upper reaches of our state government down through every one of Idaho's 729 public school buildings and the private ones, too. 

Many safety and security measures are already in place, and leaders are now taking a second look to make sure our kids are as safe as possible while in school.

On the local level

Valentine's Day at Heritage Middle School in Meridian turned from sweet to stressful.  A report of a teenager inside the school with a suspicious object brought heavily armed police out in force, and the school was put in lockdown.

"The response was amazing.  Our building was shut down within seconds and police were here within minutes," said Heritage Middle School Principal Susan McInerney.

An armed school resource officer, an SRO assigned to Heritage, was already inside, as he is every day.

"It's the SRO's primary focus to make sure that this school is safe, that the student body is safe," said SRO Sgt. Stacy Arnold with Meridian PD.

There is a constant police presence in tandem with technology.  Meridian Schools have the technology to deal with situations like the one on Valentine's Day. Heritage has 40 to 50 security cameras around campus that administrators can access by laptop.

"My assistant principals were able to identify the student on the camera, identify exactly where the student was moving throughout the building and figure out what was really going on," said Principal Susan McInerney.

What was really going on, police said, was that a teacher had brought a military style folding shovel for a class discussion on World War II and had sent a student out to grab it from the car. 

The incident tested Meridian's crisis response plan.  Police and school leaders say it passed that test.

And the ever-evolving plan is not only about response, but also prevention.  Schools hold regular, real-scenario, lockdown drills, limit access through one entrance, and have phones in every classroom.

Now, they'll meet to reassess the response to the incident. "To say, ok, this is what we did.  What could we do better," said Meridian School District Spokesman Eric Exline. 

Meridian is the state's largest school district.  It can count on a fast police response.  In rural districts, that is not always the case.  One of their biggest challenges is geography. 

The Garden Valley School District is tucked into the mountains of very large Boise County.  "For us to call the sheriff, they could be an hour away," said Garden Valley Supt.Randy Schrader. 

So Superintendent Randy Schrader says his district focuses on preparation; things including limiting access to the school and having classroom doors that all lock from the inside.

And in the wake of Sandy Hook, the district took everybody through training again. "It retrains people on the difference between a lockout, a lockdown, intruders in the buiding, intruders out the building, what do you do," said Superintendent Randy Schrader. 

Garden Valley has no school resource officers.  So the school board is talking about whether to have guns-- secured on school grounds-- that a few, well-trained teachers could access in an emergency. "Just to provide the safest environment we possibly can," said Board Chair Alan Ward.

On the state level

The newly re-convened school safety task force is also talking about whether to arm Idaho  teachers.  That is one of many topics for this group brought back together since the Sandy Hook Tragedy.

Six years ago the task force assessed school safety across the state. Among other things, it established a crisis response template for Idaho schools, provided statewide training, established security recommendations for new school construction, while also looking at how to make security equipment more affordable for existing schools.   

"Although the work back then was based on best practices, we've learned more over the past five or six years, and it's time to look at new best practices and to revisit school safety," said Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna.

At the highest level, Governor Butch Otter tapped recently retired Idaho State Police Director Colonel Jerry Russell to work along side the task force to assess and recommend possible safety and security improvements in Idaho's schools. 

"You know the question is, if that can happen there, what are we doing to make sure it doesn't happen here." said Governor Butch Otter.

Otter and Luna say it will likely lead to more training and more coordination with emergency responders to start.  Basically, shoring up the action plan to eliminate, as much as possible, the vulnerabilities that do exist.     

"Hopefully, we'll never have to use it. But it's better to have it and not need it, than to need it and not have it," said Governor Otter.    

"We pray that we never have to look back and ask ourselves could we have done more, should we have done more?" said Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna. 

Bottom line:  School safety has been a high priority for at least the last five or six years, and the Sandy Hook killings have bumped it back up a few notches. 

The spokeswoman with the Department of Education says the state task force could make initial recommendations as soon as this spring, with final recommendations ready in time for the 2014 legislature.

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