As the country debates gun policies nationwide, some local school administrators are trying to tighten security at their own buildings. One question that many school leaders are wrestling with is whether to bring armed staff on campus. Rob Manning looked at two school districts in Southwest Washington that have already started using armed security, and has this report.
Visitors to Ridgefield High School have new security hoops to jump through. It’s now the job of front office staff, like Suzanne Tudor to check ID’s and sign in visitors.
Tudor said, “And your ID?”
“Are you checking in now to walk around?”
Suzanne Tudor: “And then I need you to check out when you leave.”
That’s not the only change at Ridgefield.
Ridgefield superintendent, Art Edgerly, hasn’t quite gotten used to needing keys to open a back door of the high school.
Ridgefield High was built decades ago, when open access, rather than tight security, was the priority. It has four separate buildings, around a grassy, square courtyard. Students regularly cross it, between classes.
Edgerly said, “We have this large courtyard area. Just standing here – you can see, we have one, two, three, four major access points.”
That’s part of the reason the small-town school district in northern Clark County is spending 39,000 dollars on armed guards.
Edgerly: “With our officers, again, it’s just going to add additional hands, feet, eyes, ears to help us provide a safer learning environment for our students and staff.”
The guards started this week. Between now and the end of the school year, Phoenix Protective Corporation will provide Ridgefield with at least two armed guards for its four schools.
Edgerly says parents generally appreciate the steps the district is taking.
Abby Braithwaite’s daughter attends a Ridgefield elementary. She says the new check-in process – and allowing doors to be locked from inside of classrooms – are good moves. But she has a problem with armed guards.
Braithwaite: “We have guns in our home, my husband hunts, we have a couple hunting rifles. So I’m not 100-percent opposed to guns. But my feeling is that all of the armed guard talk is very reactionary, and short of putting up an armed fortress, we can’t really prevent these kinds of things from happening.”
A number of Northwest school districts have also heard some people advocate in the other direction – that classroom teachers or principals ought to be armed.
The school board at the larger Vancouver district to Ridgefield’s south heard testimony on that idea earlier this month.
Mick Hoffman is the Vancouver schools’ security chief.
But like many school districts in Washington and Oregon, Vancouver has long had armed security. They tend to be police officers.
Vancouver schools more than doubled its police presence in the days after the shootings in Connecticut, and has now settled into having four sworn officers on its campuses: two from the city of Vancouver, two from Clark County sheriffs. Hoffman says using police is more expensive than contracting out.
Mick Hoffman: “Private security definitely is a cheaper option, because you’re just contracting the services. But again, it depends on the law enforcement agency you’re working with, as well – because each law enforcement agency has a different philosophy on what the value of that officer is, and what the cost should be to the school district.”
Art Edgerly in the Ridgefield district acknowledges that the lower cost of private security was a selling point.
But he says the contract officers may be able to do things that police officers can’t. Say, the high school principal wants to search a set of lockers for drugs or weapons. A police officer would need probable cause.
Art Edgerly: “So, a police officer is not able to do a locker search or help us search lockers, as these folks can. Being a non-commissioned officer, they’re an extensnion of the administrators’ arms and legs, eyes and ears – and if we need to conduct a locker search, they can search lockers.”
Many school districts are still evaluating safety and security procedures. The Southwest Washington districts of Vancouver and Ridgefield are, too. A school safety committee in Vancouver intends to provide recommendations by the end of the year. Ridgefield’s contract with Phoenix Protective Corporation includes recommendations about what additional steps the district can take to make school grounds safer.
Sources for this story came from OPB’s Public Insight Network. To find out more, check oopb.org/publicinsight.