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Helmut Schmidt, Published December 13 2013

Security by design: West Fargo school buildings have secure entries as part of layout

WEST FARGO – The future of school security in the Fargo-Moorhead area might be seen in a half dozen of West Fargo’s public schools.

If you want to get into Aurora or Freedom elementary schools, Cheney or Liberty middle schools or Sheyenne or West Fargo high schools, there’s only one way: through the main office.

All of those schools’ vestibules were designed or renovated to funnel visitors to the main offices.

“We’ve been doing this for quite a while,” says Julie Rokke, a principal architect in YHR Partners of Moorhead, which does much of the architectural work for West Fargo.

Harwood and Westside elementary schools and Osgood Kindergarten Center require visitors to be buzzed in by staff members.

West Fargo district officials are also pouring over a report by MBN Engineering on the district’s oldest buildings, which suggests a two-phase upgrade with electronic door locks, intercoms, cameras, card reader entry systems and panic buttons that could cost nearly $300,000 in all.

West Fargo is not alone in weighing its security. Public schools in Fargo and Moorhead have upgraded security, adding cameras, locking most doors and changing entryway layouts.

Most of the security efforts in the metro were in place before the horrific massacre a year ago today at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., where 26 students and staff were killed in one of the worst mass killings at a school in U.S. history.

Fargo Public Schools Superintendent Jeff Schatz said Friday that school security was a focus for high schools after the 1999 shootings at Columbine (Colo.) High School, where 12 students and a teacher were killed by two students, who then killed themselves.

Local concerns were renewed with the 2005 Red Lake (Minn.) High School shootings, in which a former student killed his grandfather and his grandfather’s girlfriend, then drove to the school and killed a security guard, a teacher and five students before killing himself.

Those events led area schools to practice emergency drills, and to the creation of the Cass Clay Unified Response Team, which trains to counter school attacks, Schatz said.

The Sandy Hook massacre “put the focus on elementary schools. Are we doing enough? And do we need to do more? It caused that discussion,” Schatz said.

Entry control

Aurora Elementary School in West Fargo’s Eagle Run subdivision had its entry upgraded three years ago.

Signs on all doors say they’re locked during the school day and that visitors must go to the office. Visitors in the school must have a name tag or badge or they will be challenged, Principal Carol Zent said.

Playground supervisors keep an eye on people who drive up, park and watch the school for any length of time, she said.

“I feel security is much better,” Zent said.

The next Fargo elementary school, which will go up in Ed Clapp Park, will have a secure entry system, Schatz said. He said the district “will take a hard look” at retrofitting entries at older schools to create secure entries that funnel visitors to offices.

For schools where that can’t happen, Schatz said the district may install a system that relies on cameras, intercoms and electronic locks to have staff “buzz in” visitors after they are vetted.

That system has been tested at Roosevelt, Horace Mann and Longfellow elementary schools, he said.

Kim Colwell, principal of the paired Horace Mann and Roosevelt schools, said he likes it. Older schools are designed with their offices in the center of the building. Colwell said in years past, someone could enter a school like Roosevelt and be on the third floor without anyone in the office having a clue.

“I feel safer,” Colwell said. “With this camera, it’s like we’re down there; it’s very clear. It’s working for us.”

Eyes everywhere

The Moorhead School District has upgraded old security cameras, added more than 200 new cameras and plans to add even more, Superintendent Lynne Kovash said.

In the last two years, Ellen Hopkins and Robert Asp elementary schools had their offices moved so visitors must walk by them to enter the buildings. And the Probstfield Center for Education now has a separate entrance for students from the district office, Kovash said.

The high school presents a unique problem. It has two entrances and has an open campus, with students coming and going.

Kovash is considering what to do. Should buzzer entry systems be installed at schools? Are guards needed at doors? Or should entries be redone again?

Michael Smith, superintendent of the Blessed John Paul II Catholic Schools in Fargo, declined to discuss security arrangements for the diocese’s schools.

Schools, not prisons

Something emphasized by many officials is that schools are by their nature meant to be welcoming places. They’re not jails or prisons.

Cities like Chicago will have metal detectors in schools, similar to those in airports, said Rokke, the architect.

But Fargo is not Chicago, she said.

“You walk a fine line. You don’t want to make kids feel scared to be in the building,” Rokke said.

There is a natural tension between the dueling philosophies of openness and security, Kovash said.

“Do we become a locked-down environment that’s not welcoming?” she asks.

“The balance is how to remain a public facility where people can still come and go,” Schatz said. “We still have to be available to those that come to the school, parents and others, and find ways to let them come.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter

Helmut Schmidt at (701) 241-5583