Parents seek security upgrades, while schools officials call for more money

Parents seek security upgrades, while schools officials call for more money

Michele Ellson

School and city leaders agreed to erect this fence around the blacktop at Ruby Bridges Elementary School after a student was sexually assaulted there in September. Photo by Michele Ellson.

Alameda’s public school parents have been pushing for security upgrades in the wake of a mass murder at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn. and a rash of frightening incidents at schools here on the Island. School district officials said they’ve made some changes, but that voters will need to give them bond money to finance many of the upgrades parents want – a contention that doesn’t sit well with some who want fixes made sooner rather than later.

“The community and the Board of Education will identify priorities for safety measures at our school sites through the facilities master plan process, which is currently under way. After that, it will take a bond to give us the revenue needed to include such measures at our sites,” Robbie Lyng, the district’s top maintenance and operations official, was quoted as saying by a district spokeswoman.

The killing of 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School, which happened a year ago Saturday, prompted parents at Bay Farm School to start a safety task force to look into security issues and possible fixes, while an existing safety committee at Edison Elementary School shifted some of its focus from emergency preparedness to campus security, a parent involved in the committee said.

Parents at a third school, Ruby Bridges Elementary, formed a safety committee after a student was sexually assaulted while attending an after school program there, in September. After the Ruby Bridges assault, schools leaders worked with the city’s parks department to erect a fence around the school’s blacktop and to enforce a district edict that entrances be shut and locked after school starts. But one Ruby Bridges parent said she doesn’t think the new fence, which parents had unsuccessfully requested before the incident, is enough to keep children safe.

“They did put up a fence. I think that was a very swift response,” Ruby Bridges parent Debra Mendoza said. “But I feel like the safety issue hasn’t gone away.”

School district spokeswoman Susan Davis said the district has made several changes this year to its safety procedures to address the safety needs of the roughly 9,000 students in the district’s care, including adding lockdown procedures to Alameda Unified’s existing safety plan and increasing the frequency of safety training. Davis said the district is working with the Alameda Police Department to conduct safety assessments at all of its school sites and correcting deficiencies they find.

The district spent $6.5 million over the summer to pay for paint, roof repairs and other upgrades for schools, but none of the money was used to upgrade security. A fence long requested by Ruby Bridges parents was erected around the school’s blacktop after the assault.

Davis said the district is also exploring a pilot of an online program that will allow school staff to communicate with police and firefighters during an emergency and is rolling out an identification badge system for district employees that is expected to be completely in place by mid-February.

The district is also “expanding the dialogue about safety” with after school programs, Davis said, following the Ruby Bridges incident; an adult is now stationed at the school’s gates when children are dismissed from LEAPS, she said.

In addition to the assault, several schools have gone on lockdown this school year following threats and reports of off-campus gun violence. Police reportedly increased their presence at Alameda High School last Wednesday as the result of a threat scrawled on a bathroom wall there.

But some of the physical security improvements parents are discussing – a list that includes “Columbine locks” that would automatically lock classroom doors from the inside and additional fencing – will need to be put forward by parents during the district’s coming facilities master plan and then win the approval of the school board in order to be considered. And district officials said voters will need to let the district float bonds in order to pay for whatever security needs are included in the facilities plan.

Davis said safety “came up as a priority” during meetings this fall with teachers and administrators to talk about what kind of education new and revamped schools should support. Parents will be able to suggest safety improvements during facilities meetings this coming winter and spring, she said.

“Based on that feedback, the community and the Board of Education will then decide if safety is a priority for the school district and, if so, which safety measures would be best,” she said.

Parents at some schools, like Bay Farm, have already initiated that process. Bay Farm’s task force explored security holes at the school and possible solutions, issuing final recommendations; in September, the list of high-priority security upgrades included additional fencing and gates, uniform signage, improved doors and locks, additional cameras and an alert system.

Nine months earlier, district officials told Bay Farm parents that installing the locks on classroom doors across the district would cost $4.5 million, meeting minutes show.

“There is no budget for this,” the minutes say.

Edison’s PTA held a post-Newtown safety symposium to discuss their security concerns, said Karen Burton, a parent who co-chairs the school’s safety committee; she said a district maintenance official agreed that a fence some parents want installed on the Pearl Street side of the school would help protect students, “but nothing really happened.”

Davis said the district has improved the school’s outside lighting and has plans to enclose the school’s Buena Vista Avenue entrance over winter break; the district plans to take bids for fencing along Pearl Street, though it wasn’t clear when or if the district might schedule the work. (Superintendent Kirsten Vital told the school board in November the Pearl Street fence would cost $45,000.)

Burton – who talked to the school board about the desire for the fence at that November meeting – said she’s encouraged by the district’s progress on the fence, which she feels could help address everyday concerns like students chasing wayward playground balls into the street and also, deter people who don’t belong on the Edison campus. But she said she doesn’t think the district should wait until a bond is passed to erect one.

“If safety is a paramount concern to the district, we ask that you take some action now,” Burton told the board in November.

Still, she said Edison’s parent community and its neighbors are split on whether a taller fence should go in. Some parents don’t want the fence, Burton said, while others want the entire campus enclosed.

“The fence itself at Edison is an extremely polarizing issue,” she said.

Built in 2006, Ruby Bridges already has a host of built-in security features common in schools built after the 1999 Columbine High shootings in Colorado, including fencing and gates that surround the entire campus and an office that’s accessed separately from the rest of the school. Most of Alameda’s other school campuses – some of which have passed the half-century mark – lack those features and are wide open to visitors.

After the Newtown shootings, The Alamedan visited Ruby Bridges, Edison and Lum elementary schools to gauge how easy they were to access and whether basic security procedures were being followed. The reporter was able to walk freely around each campus without a required visitor’s sticker for between five and 10 minutes and was not questioned by any of the adults she encountered.

Burton said the killings prompted families to be more vigilant about signing in at the school’s front office as required and wearing mandatory visitors’ stickers, things security experts have said are basic measures that offer an immediate sense of who’s supposed to be on campus and who is not. After the Ruby Bridges assault, Vital issued a letter to parents across the district reminding them to sign in at school offices and wear a visitor’s sticker while on campus.

Mendoza, who sits on Ruby Bridges’ new safety committee, said there are other things the district can do to improve safety, at little cost. She said she wants the school to communicate its progress on safety more clearly and regularly to families and to perform better outreach to her school’s diverse community; she had criticized the school for being too slow to inform parents of the incident. And she is eager to see the staff badging system put in place.

Mendoza said she wants the district to more clearly articulate who is allowed to come on campus even as a visitor, though she said children may feel safer with more adults on campus. And she said she’s concerned that the district’s policies, even if they are strong, are not always followed.

“We need to continue to engage with our school leaders,” Mendoza said. “Otherwise it’s going to be business as usual again.”

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Basic safety measures lacking at some Alameda schools

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Submitted by Susan Davis (AUSD) (not verified) on Tue, Dec 17, 2013

Hi Michele,

I'd just like to clarify that the school district has had --and school sites have practiced -- lockdown procedures for some years. However, over the last year the district has added new lockdown procedures to those existing safety plans, with the aim of creating protocols that work for many different scenarios and reflect recent research in school safety. (That seemed a little unclear in the 6th paragraph.)

Readers interested in attending Facilities Master Plan meetings at their local school sites can find the schedule here: The afternoon meetings are working sessions for the school site committees; the evening meetings are open to the public.

Thank you,
Susan Davis
Senior Manager, Community Affairs