Police and district officials commit to safety improvements

The 20-year-old man who killed more than two dozen people in a small elementary school in Newtown, Conn., Friday morning forced Beaverton and other school districts in Washington County to consider the possibility that something similar could happen here.

Across the country, school leaders tried to calm the fears of concerned parents who watched in horror as details emerged from the shooting deaths at Sandy Hook Elementary School at the hands of Adam Lanza.

Beaverton schools’ Superintendent Jeff Rose issued a letter shortly after the rampage, reassuring staff, parents and the community that safety measures are in place.

“This tragic event is a terrible reminder of the importance of keeping safety procedures and policies in the forefront of our daily work and intentions,” Rose wrote. “Safety is the number one priority of the Beaverton School District.

“We will review our current operational practices and will continue to work in close collaboration with the Washington County Sheriff’s Office and the Beaverton Police Department to ensure our school buildings are as safe and secure as we can humanly make them.”

Some examples of safety measures in place include visitors being required to check in at the main office when entering a school, a background check process for volunteers and school resource officers assigned throughout the district, Rose said.

Also included in that message, Rose said the district, in partnership with the Beaverton Police Department, Washington County Sheriff’s Office and other emergency responders, is adept at protecting students in the event of an emergency.

“The safety of our students while they are in our care is of the utmost importance,” Rose said.

To that end, the district maintains a Threat Assessment Team, works with safety committees in each school and participates in the Safe Schools of Washington County Committee to train for, plan and prepare for any potential safety threats or emergencies.

“I have a high level of confidence that we are prepared to respond to any major incident,” said Beaverton Police Chief Geoff Spalding. “The recent events serve as a grim reminder of how close to home tragedies can hit. We have an opportunity to sharpen the pencil and look at ways we can improve as partners.

“Here in Washington County, we are fortunate in the level of cooperation we have between all emergency responders and our schools. By working together, we serve our citizens well.”

Shaken but vigilant

Events that unfolded Friday on the East Coast brought even more anxiety to a region already shaken by the Dec. 11 Clackamas Town Center shooting that claimed the lives of two people and injured another. Schools had counselors and psychologists on hand to speak with students struggling with news of the recent violent acts.

Chief Spalding and Washington County Sheriff Pat Garrett both asked their law enforcement teams to step up patrols around school neighborhoods. School resource officers from both agencies also made sure to visit each of their schools and make themselves available to staff and students.

Some parents picked students up from school early on Friday while others called seeking advice on how to talk to their children about the incidents and address their child’s concerns and sense of safety.

Principals on Monday reminded staff to be on “high alert,” watch front entrances of their schools and lock all auxiliary doors.

Both tragedies also made school leaders, staff and parents reflect on current safety protocol and reexamine possible improvements.

Kevin Sutherland, who has served as the district’s public safety director for three years, said the district spends a great deal of time and continually invests in a “sincere effort” to make sure schools are safe for students and staff.

In February 2011, the district completed an office security and visibility study of all 33 elementary schools. Dull Olson Weekes Architects reviewed and analyzed existing school security conditions, recommended modifications to improve safety and security, prioritized needs and compiled budget estimates to address the 10 most critical issues.

While some of the building improvements come with hefty price tags, Sutherland said schools have taken strides to implement recommendations and follow best practices in school security policies.

At one elementary school, where main office staff cannot see the main entry, the district is participating in a pilot program utilizing a camera and call button to control access to the building during school hours. Several schools are using a key card system.

The district is also testing two video surveillance platforms that allow police and school officials to watch real-time footage in buildings, Sutherland said.

“We have different layers of security measures we are working on,” he added.

The district and its community partners are investing in safety — from handheld radio communication within schools to ongoing training and drills completed in each building with emergency responders and work with staff to identify students in need of professional help for suicide prevention, alcohol and drug use or other safety concerns, Sutherland said.

“We try to be proactive with training and drills to lesson the amount of damage, accelerate the response cycle to get any issue dealt with quickly and protect as many people as possible while also preparing for the recovery phase,” Sutherland said. “Our goal is to empower parents and staff in and around schools. If they see something is not right, we want them to step forward and address it, whether it is a check-in system that needs to be reevaluated or a person walking in the halls without a visitor badge or staff ID.”

Students also play a role in creating a safe school environment. If students see another student bring a weapon to school or hear a rumor about a potential threat, they are asked to tell a teacher, administrator or their school resource officer.

“We all have a role in keeping our schools and communities as safe as possible,” said Maureen Wheeler, public communication officer for Beaverton schools. “As a school district, with almost 45,000 students and staff, we are fully committed to continuous improvement and regularly assessing of our operational procedures and practices.

“We know that a prevention and intervention approach is the most effective approach to keeping our schools safe.”

During winter break, emergency crews from Tualatin Valley Fire & Rescue, Beaverton police, the sheriff’s office and several interagency specialty teams will run a live-threat training drill at Stoller Middle School to test the response and communication systems in place and evaluate efficiencies and areas of improvement.

Several members of the District Safety Committee, along with local law enforcement departments and emergency managers from the city of Beaverton will also participate in a weeklong training in emergency management this spring in Maryland. “Hosted by the Department of Homeland Security, this training will result in a more cohesive and comprehensive approach to school and community safety practices,” Wheeler said.

“Having the opportunity to train together is critical,” Spalding added. “Strong pre-planning makes a difference in our response to a significant event.”

Garrett agreed.

“Beaverton police and the sheriff’s office are committed to working shoulder to shoulder with schools in our tactical response and work to train staff and students to respond to any traumatic event,” Garrett said. “Our goal is to make sure schools are the safest place for our kids to be.”

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