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Helmut Schmidt, Published December 17 2012

Securing the schools

HARWOOD, N.D. – If you want to get into Harwood Elementary during the school day, be prepared to cool your heels for an extra minute or two.

The school is the only one in the Fargo-Moorhead area that locks all of its doors to the outside, including the main door.

To get in, you need to go through Coralie Farkas, administrative assistant and gatekeeper.

“We’ve been doing that for about two years,” Farkas said. “There’s a phone in the entry if they aren’t seen (from the office right away). I know the majority of my people.”

If she doesn’t know you, haul out your ID, she said.

In the wake of Friday’s school shootings in Newtown, Conn., law enforcement and school officials throughout Cass and Clay counties are examining school security protocols to see if they still hold up.

School counselors are also keeping an eye on students.

Young people already grieving may be getting a second shock, and caregivers, such as teachers, may be harder hit psychologically than their students, experts said.

The Harwood school’s system was implemented a couple of years ago, Principal Jerry Barnum said.

Parents were worried about a sex offender living near the school, Interstate 29 is a couple blocks away, and a gas station and convenience store sits across from the building, he said.

Barnum, who splits his duties between Harwood and Horace Elementary in the West Fargo School District, said if Horace parents wanted to do the same thing, he’d add it there.

“It’s just one more thing that an intruder has to do to get access to the kids,” he said. “I like it. I like the system.”

All schools in Cass and Clay counties worked with law enforcement to step up security in the last few years, said Sgt. Tara Morris of the Cass County Sheriff’s Department.

Morris, the unified school response coordinator for the counties, keeps police and deputies on both sides of the Red River “on the same page” with training, practicing lockdowns for intruders, and handling bomb threats, chemical spills and other scenarios.

In the metro area, the high schools and middle schools have police officers known as school resource officers.

Officers also work the areas in and around elementary schools, particularly during the morning, to be sure drivers drive safely, and to let students and adults know police are ready to help, Fargo Police Chief Keith Ternes said.

Fargo has a law that requires people to check in at school offices when they get on campus. While other cities haven’t followed suit, other school districts make it a policy to have people check in school offices, Morris said.

She said Fargo and West Fargo police also test the schools a couple times a year to be sure they won’t let intruders enter without a challenge.

One of the issues is that older school layouts aren’t designed for modern security, making it more difficult to monitor entrances Morris said.

New schools, however, are built with security in mind, she said.

The Moorhead School District solved that security issue by reconfiguring the main entries for the elementary schools, Superintendent Lynne Kovash said.

In the Central Cass School District in Casselton, steel gates can be automatically lowered with the touch of a button to isolate parts of the K-12 building, and more than 60 cameras have been installed, Elementary School Principal Chris Bastian said

“We’ve got eyes pretty much everywhere. We’re pleased with that, and we can access those cameras online,” Bastian said.

Morris said school officials must balance security with how a school needs to function.

“No place is Fort Knox, and we don’t expect them to be,” Morris said.

Ternes said that’s the challenge for communities across the country, including Fargo.

“Could we turn our schools into fortresses, where they virtually couldn’t be accessed by anyone and everyone,” Ternes said. “I suppose you could harden the school environment to the point where they resemble jails, where you can’t get in or out.”

Fargo strikes the right balance between security and freedom, he said. But the school security debate needs to encompass more than locks and cops.

“More needs to be done to stem gun violence and to address mental health issues for young people,” Ternes said.

Grief rekindled

Counselors in the Fargo, West Fargo and Moorhead schools districts said Monday they have not seen any significant increase in the number of students needing counseling due to last week’s school shootings.

Teachers have been given tips on what to listen for and urged to send students who may need help to counselors.

Some students who have had a loss in the past three months have found themselves grieving again, said Scott Matheson, the student assistance counselor coordinator for the Moorhead School District.

Nancy Tisor, a counselor at Fargo’s Lincoln Elementary School, said she and other counselors have fielded calls from parents seeking advice on how to explain the tragedy.

Linda Fisher, the West Fargo School District’s counselor coordinator, said she had a few students at the middle school STEM Center visit her Monday.

“I’ve heard no feedback like, we’re having trouble here. It’s kind of like no news is good news,” she said.

However, “they’re finding it’s real hard for staff. They carry out their day, They try to make it as normal as they can for the kids, but at the end of the day, they looked exhausted,” Fisher said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Helmut Schmidt at (701) 241-5583

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