District to spend $6.4 million on school security measures

Michelle Theriault Boots

The Anchorage School District plans to spend more than $6 million in state legislative grants on security upgrades to every public elementary, middle and high school in the city, starting this fall.

The changes come from a review of the safety of Anchorage's schools conducted after the Sandy Hook massacre in December 2012.

The district must strike a balance between making Anchorage schools as safe as possible and preserving their openness to the community, administrators say.

"(Principals) do not want to present the image of a fortress or a bunker for their schools," said Mike Abbott, the district's operations chief. "But they also recognize they have the responsibility and motivation to keep students and themselves safe."

For now that means panic buttons, front doors that can lock electronically and more surveillance cameras. There are no plans for bullet-proof glass, metal detectors or arming citizen volunteers.

After the killings at Sandy Hook Elementary School, the district hired a former Anchorage Police Department captain and school security head, Gardner Cobb, to lead a review of security procedures.

In February 2013, Cobb and the reviewers came back with mixed news: Anchorage schools, they found, are some of the most secure in the nation in their ability to "lockdown" quickly. Emergency plans are in place in every school in the district and faithfully practiced in drill scenarios by teachers, students and administrators.

Some of that is due to the fact that the district has faced what security experts call an "active attacker" scenario before.

In May 2001, a man with a history of psychiatric illness attacked children waiting to get in to Mountain View Elementary School with a fillet knife, slashing four young boys and horrifying the community. All the children survived.

In the aftermath of the incident the district made a "significant investment" in outfitting every school with the capability to lock down classrooms, Abbott said.

"We retrofitted virtually every classroom in the district," he said. "It took a couple years and several million dollars and we remain one of the best prepared in the nation in that way."

Weak spots still remain, the reviewers said in a report to state Commissioner of Education Mike Hanley.

The district found that 31 buildings needed upgraded intercoms, 16 elementary schools didn't have basic video surveillance equipment and several elementary schools weren't designed to let office staff monitor traffic in and out the front door. The district won't describe the security weaknesses of individual schools.

The district asked the legislature for $8.5 million to shore up surveillance, communications and alarm systems and received $6.4 million. The Anchorage School Board approved the spending without dissent at its meeting Monday night

Some of the projects planned with the money include adding panic buttons that trigger an alarm directly at the Anchorage Police Department dispatch center. They will be the first alarms in the city hard-wired directly to the APD, Abbott said. Every elementary school will also get front doors that can be locked remotely by office staff in case of a threat. Intercoms and radios will be replaced and upgraded to allow all classrooms to communicate with the office in an emergency.

The scale of the project is huge, said Abbott.

"We're going to touch every building."

Most of the work should be done by the beginning of the 2014-2015 school year.

The changes will be to the buildings, not policies.

Volunteers with guns will not be allowed to patrol Anchorage schools, as the National Rifle Association suggested. And teachers will not be given an exception to the "no firearms on school property" rule. In January, Anchorage Rep. Bob Lynn, a Republican, proposed a bill into allow school districts to arm teachers and other staff, but even with three other sponsors -- Republican Reps. Gabrielle LeDoux, Doug Isaacson and Tammie Wilson -- the bill never got a hearing.

Current law already would allow teachers without a felony record to carry guns with permission from administration, but after discussing the idea with police chief Mark Mew, the district decided that the benefits of arming volunteers or teachers wouldn't outweigh the risks, Abbott said.

Lake Otis Elementary School principal Doug Gray said he thinks a lot about safety at his school, attended by about 400 students.

"I feel good about it," he said. "I think we run a pretty secure building."

There are drills and safety committees in place, he said. The school will be getting more surveillance cameras.

The trick, he said, is to make sure parents, neighbors and community members still feel welcomed as they walk through the doors -- even if they're fortified by locks and buzzers

Reach Michelle Theriault Boots at mtheriault@adn.com or 257-4344.

Safety first

Security upgrades for Anchorage schools

• "Duress alarms" that alert Anchorage Police headquarters for every school building

• Electronically-operable front doors for all elementary schools

• Intercom and radio improvements to allow for two-way communication between classrooms and administrators at every school building

• Video surveillance at all elementary schools

• Remodeled front door areas at several schools