Traverse City Record-Eagle


February 15, 2013

Local schools make safety changes

TRAVERSE CITY — Northwestern Michigan College is investing $20,000 to make it easier for teachers to lock classroom doors from the inside in the event of a crisis.

The move is among several measures that area schools are taking to protect students. But school officials are discovering solutions aren't always easy as they try to balance security with freedom of movement.

"People are saying, 'Just do something.' If you're not careful, your 'something' will have unintended consequences," said Paul Soma, chief financial officer and chief operating officer for Traverse City Area Public Schools.

Most area schools, for example, limit school entrances to just one, and leave the sole entrance unlocked. TCAPS is now reviewing that policy.

From a practical perspective, a locked door would mean employees monitoring and buzzing in countless people into the district's 18 buildings, Soma said.

"It's debatable if it would save the situation. Newtown had locked doors, including the front door," he said.

At Montessori Children's House, the entrance door is outfitted with a keypad that staff, parents and some students use, said Colleen Christensen, operations director.

The sheriff's department and TCAPS helped the school write a "rock solid" security plan, said Christensen, who thought it unwise to go into specifics.

Soma said TCAPS has taken many steps over the years, such as equipping schools with security cameras, rehearsing lockdowns with first responders, and installing panic switches that can initiate a lockdown and 911 call. Visitors seen without a badge are directed to check in at the office, Soma said.

A bond issue allowed the district to remodel the entrance of East Middle School a few years ago that allows school personnel to see who is coming through the front door. The district eventually wants to do the same at Central High School.

NMC decided to modify classroom locks so teachers would no longer need a key to lock the door from the inside, said Vicki Cook, NMC's vice president of finance and administration.

In February, NMC will install a system that can send a voice message to more than 800 phones on four campuses in less than five minutes, a feature costing $16,000 over the next five years, Cook said.

NMC also is considering a communication mechanism that would essentially blast a message in every way possible — by voice broadcast to campus phones, emails, phone calls and text messages to cell phones and land lines, and messages to all computer displays, Cook said.

Soma said physical security is just one facet of a complex problem.

"I think we need to look at a comprehensive solution," he said. "The fact someone can kill 20 people in a matter of seconds, I don't know. I don't know what you need that kind of fire power for."

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