As students start to head back to most Oregon schools this week, some changes will be obvious before they even get inside.
Secure vestibules with intercoms, doors that lock from inside, limited entryways and new fencing are all signs students and parents are likely to notice as they show up for school. The new features are reminders that school districts are stepping up security against mass shootings — particularly in the wake of the attack at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida last February.
In the greater Portland area, schools from Estacada to Forest Grove are installing new safety features. The most common step involves requiring school staff to approve the entry of people as they show up. Some schools enacted similar security steps years ago, but they’ve accelerated in recent years.
In Gladstone, the new security measures started rolling out in spring 2018 after the Florida shooting.
“Visitors who need to enter the building during school hours stand in front of the camera near the front entrance at each school and push the call button,” said Leslie Robinette, a spokeswoman for the Gladstone School District.
Staff can then see the person trying to enter the building, talk to them, and open access after approval.
Many schools have installed a double-entry requirement, in which visitors enter a secure vestibule before getting all the way into the school buildings. The glass-encased waiting rooms can provide an extra layer of security, or simply a weatherproof place to wait out of the elements.
Similar to the “call” system in the Gladstone schools, visitors typically need school staff to remotely unlock the doors to let them through.
Beaverton installed vestibules at four elementary schools. The Lake Oswego School District put vestibules at four schools this summer, too.
“We will be working with a security consultant to design the other six (for the district’s other schools),” said Lake Oswego spokesperson Christine Moses.
Officials in Sherwood said they’re wrapping up work on new vestibules at their final schools leading up to the start of the school year.
“In addition, new access control, intrusion detection and security cameras are being installed at all district buildings,” said Christine Andregg with the Sherwood School District.
Beaverton is adding other security measures at the individual classroom level.
“We are also in the process of replacing all of the door knobs for our classrooms with knobs that have a push button lock on the interior, to make it more efficient for staff to lock doors quickly,” said Beaverton communications coordinator Kara Yunck.
Of the 20-or-so Oregon school districts that responded to questions from OPB, every one of them reported making recent changes to tighten security at school buildings, or they were intending to make them soon.
In the “soon” category is the Hillsboro School District. Chief communications officer Beth Graser noted that security is a major focus of a $408 million bond measure voters approved last November.
“Over the next five years, [the Hillsboro School District] will be making a significant investment in safety and security systems with things like security cameras at all schools and on buses, security fencing at campuses where that is needed, line of sight improvements, front door access controls, distributed antennae systems to allow first responders to communicate within our buildings, etc.,” Graser wrote in an email to OPB.
It’s easier to make such changes at some schools than others. The Molalla River School District doesn’t have construction bond revenue to draw from, and at least one of its elementary school buildings is especially difficult to secure.
“[It] has every classroom exiting to the outside,” said Molalla River Supt. Tony Mann. “To increase safety and security, the district has worked with the school staff and community to design and install security fencing that will require electronic access to reach the doors from outside the building.”
Other districts provided OPB with lists of security steps they’re taking at schools, which go beyond locked doors and security fencing. Gresham-Barlow included the addition of a new district safety and security administrator and its consultations with emergency responders as further steps they’re taking.
Oregon’s largest district, Portland Public Schools, has also taken steps to improve building security. But Portland school board members are concerned that efforts to cut costs in some of their recent capital bond projects have reduced security steps.
“The intercom systems at the front doors of both Franklin and Roosevelt [high schools] were ‘value-engineered’ out of the project, and the doors remain unlocked during the day,” noted board member Julia Brim-Edwards, quoting from a district health and safety report from July.
Brim-Edwards used that example to support her call for stronger board oversight of steps intended to save money through “value-engineering.”
Another big change at Oregon schools this fall may be far less obvious, and it’s part of a state mandate rather than the initiative of individual school districts.
The Oregon Legislature passed laws over the last four years aimed at improving how public schools support children with dyslexia.
Dyslexia is considered a “specific learning disability,” for educational purposes, but teachers don’t diagnose it — that’s up to doctors. What educators can do is screen for risk factors and respond to those, which is slated to start happening this fall.
The laws boil down to two key requirements: that every elementary school have at least one teacher trained in dyslexia, and that every kindergartner or first-grader be screened for potential risk of dyslexia.
The screening means that many parents of students with the least experience in the classroom will get potentially jarring news in the first few months of school.
Oregon officials are still finalizing guidelines around how best to notify parents that their 5- or 6-year-old may have a learning disability, believed to affect as many as one in five Americans.
Judging by OPB’s non-scientific survey of Portland-area school districts, school administrators generally feel they’re in compliance with the new dyslexia laws.
Nearly all school districts contacted said they would satisfy the requirement that each elementary school have a teacher who’s completed a state-approved dyslexia training course. But in a few cases, those teachers have since left those jobs.
Sherwood school officials said they made sure a teacher at each elementary school got trained.
“[But] two of those staff members recently accepted other leadership positions in our district,” Andregg said. “We are currently working to train two more teachers to remain in compliance and have applied for a waiver through the [Oregon Department of Education].”
It’s a similar story in Estacada.
“We have one trained teacher in every elementary school, with the exception of one school that just experienced teacher turnover, where we will be training someone to meet that need,” said Maggie Kelly at the Estacada School District.
Oregon officials noted that the law allows smaller school districts to get waivers, which would allow districts to share dyslexia-trained teachers with the local education service district. ODE said in late August that it was in the process of approving several waiver requests that had been submitted.
Some school districts are raising concerns about cost. The special education director from the Pendleton School District noted that the dyslexia mandate brings costs for teacher training and other aspects of implementation, but pointed out that the Legislature has not offered funding to cover those costs.
Supporters of the dyslexia law said there is a way for school districts to get paid back for money they've spent to train teachers. According to the ODE web site, districts need to submit documentation that teachers completed the training and have the trained teachers join an online group for dyslexia trainees. The funds are intended to compensate teachers who received training before the June 30, 2018 deadline.