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Community : Top Stories Last Updated: Feb 20, 2013 - 9:03:06 AM

Local Schools Make Security a Top Priority
By Jennifer Johnston and Elizabeth Bush
Feb 20, 2013 - 8:58:13 AM

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At Bishop England and Belle Hall, protection remains a priority
Change often occurs when something frightening, but relatively remote, hits closer to home. The country was stunned and saddened by the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut. But when a woman approached the campus of Ashley Hall School on February 4 and pointed a gun at its director, a more imminent warning signal seemed to sound in the minds of families across the Lowcountry. And considerations of Sandy Hook gave way to palpable concern about what could have happened in our own backyard, as a collective question was raised: how well are our children protected at school?
But within our area schools, it turns out the recent acts of violence did not drive, but rather validated, procedures that were already in place and changes that had been underway for some time. Bishop England High School and Belle Hall Elementary, institutions that fall within the Daniel Island News’ readership, are two examples of schools where a philosophy of proactive measures, rather than reactive fixes, have been adopted.
 “We’ve been ahead of the curve, doing this for years,” reports Jason Sakran of the Charleston County School District (CCSD) Office of Communications. “Many of our schools have vestibules at the entrance, and visitors have to get buzzed in.” The district also promotes a series of steps known as SCAN: see, contact, ask, notify. When staff and faculty see someone they don't know, they make an effort to establish contact, make sure a visitor badge is visible or ask them if they've been to the office, and then of course notify the office immediately if the visitor is not in compliance. "People are the best security and safety measure," Belle Hall Principal Kevin Conklin states.
Still, procedures are only as good as their actual execution, so on January 17 and 18, every school in the Charleston County district participated in a crisis management exercise aimed at brushing up on the actual logistics of four different emergency scenarios. “This was an important effort to get folks reviewing steps in a realistic setting, rather than just looking at a PowerPoint presentation,” explains Sakran. Every teacher and principal took part in this professional development day, directed by a thoughtfully-planned packet from the district, which included scenario scripts and a template for discussion.
Principal Conklin noted another advantage of the drills: “When you run them with students, you are still attending to the kids, but with this format we were really able to ask questions and have conversations.” Conklin went on to point out that, although there have not been any recent changes to protocol, every CCSD campus is different, so it was a great tool to promote uniformity across the district. And while Conklin has not necessarily received an influx of calls from worried parents over the past couple of months, he attributes that to an already remarkably tight-knit, involved community. “I would say that the recent events created more of an awareness,” Belle Hall’s principal contends. “We tend to get more calls saying ‘what can we do to help?’”
By contrast, Bishop England High School (BEHS) has adopted new security practices in recent weeks. However, the preponderance of the changes was not in response to events in the news. “At the end of last school year, we started gathering numbers and input from security companies,” BEHS Principal Michael Bolchoz makes clear. “We have yearly audits by the Diocese on numerous things, and one of those things is the safety of our facility and our procedures.” BEHS enjoys an open campus, and the school needed to make modifications that would balance the beauty and spirit of that layout with safekeeping of students and staff.
The study and planning of heightened security at the high school culminated in a roll-out of new procedures earlier this month. Just a few days prior to their launch on February 7, BEHS families received notice of the following modifications:
• Installation of inside locks on every classroom door to allow teachers to secure those doors from the inside.
• Update and installation of video cameras in strategic locations around campus, with several more to be installed over the next few weeks.
• Presence of police officers from the City of Charleston on campus on a daily basis, especially during lunch time.
• Installation of automatic, computer-controlled locks on exterior doors and on select interior doors.
These measures significantly curtail “free” movement around campus during class time, and limit access to certain areas. After each tardy bell, the campus will be secured, and students or visitors finding themselves outside at this time may only re-enter through the main doors where office staff can “buzz” them in. In addition, the campus will be secured each day at 4 pm, and students are only to remain in the school buildings if they are in the presence of a faculty member or coach. The letter to families acknowledged that school leaders “are aware that this will present drastic change, but we remind parents and students that this is being done to offer you the safest and most secure environment possible.”
Principal Bolchoz indicated that he did not field many concerned calls from parents in the days after the Sandy Hook and Ashley Hall incidents, as most parents in the community were already aware of the changes that were being planned at Bishop England. And he tells us that the BEHS community is “very comfortable now, with a very secure campus, where students feel safe and parents have been thankful and complimentary.”
These parents are accustomed to being part of a school that takes safety seriously. For years, visitors have been required to obtain badges from the office, and security cameras have been a conspicuous tool for protection. BEHS’ website maintains that “the administrators of BEHS continue to update our safety plans and remain prompt in implementing guidelines from the United States Department of Education.” The site’s parent information also points to the dangers of posting information about specific safety threats or issues on the school’s webpages, and directs families to its password-protected site, Net Classroom, for official information and instructions should an emergency arise.
Code Purple Drills, based on guidelines set forth by the Center for the Prevention of School Violence, are practiced within Charleston County Schools and at BEHS. Since Bishop England is a private school, a School Resource Officer has not historically been assigned to its campus, as is the case at many upper-level schools within the public districts. But Lieutenant Katrina Rivers, Commander of Police Team 5 on Daniel Island, noted that “Since the recent incidents involving violence at schools, we have included BE in our patrols.”
So there have been some adjustments to area school policies and procedures in response to the stories and images of late. But it seems that at Belle Hall and Bishop England, exceptional protocol was already in place, and forward-thinking modifications were already in motion.

DIS and HHS step up security

Last summer, glass doors were installed in the main lobby at the Daniel Island School to secure access to instructional areas of the school. All visitors are required to check in at the front office before being granted access inside the building.
A pull-down security gate at the end of the related arts hallway at DIS prevents access to academic areas of the facility when the gym and multi-purpose room are being used on evenings and weekends.
Officer Joseph Dela Rosa helps keep students and staff safe each and every day at Daniel Island School. Since the tragic shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School, he has moved his office from the second floor to a more visible location on the first floor, so he can more effectively monitor the school’s entry points.

Marianne McAvoy has a certain routine she follows each and every morning when her first grade students file into the classroom at Daniel Island School (DIS). First, students share morning greetings with their classmates and teacher. McAvoy then instructs them to unpack their bookbags, read a little from a favorite book, and prepare for the day’s announcements. But in recent weeks, she and her fellow DIS teachers have added yet another important task to the morning to-do list. Lock the classroom door.
The new security measure is one of several that DIS has implemented in the wake of the tragic shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.  It is yet another indication that these students and staff members, as well as their counterparts across the nation, live in a different world now, one that requires constant vigilance and awareness of potential threats to safety. The arrest of a woman who attempted to fire a weapon on the campus of Ashley Hall School in downtown Charleston on February 4 brought the message even closer to home. 
“I think it’s just about being diligent day to day,” said DIS Principal Marty French.
Before the start of the school year, and before violence erupted in Newtown, the Daniel Island School was already taking steps to beef up security at the K-8 facility, added French. Glass doors were installed last summer in the school’s foyer area to prevent visitors from entering the hallways to instructional areas without clearance from the front office personnel.  A security gate was also added at the end of the facility’s related arts hallway to allow the school to “lock down” the academic section of the building when the gym and multi-purpose room are being used on evenings and weekends.
Since the incident at Sandy Hook, in addition to locking classroom doors, they also now have two clerks at the front desk at all times. Those planning to visit a classroom at the school must complete an observation form 24 hours in advance. Officer Joseph Dela Rosa, the School Resource Officer, has moved his station from the second floor to the first floor, directly behind the front office area, to allow him to more effectively monitor the facility’s entry points.  In addition, all exterior doors are to remain locked at all times during the instructional day. 
“Our outside threats are obviously going to be more apt to happen on the first floor,” said French. “(Now, outsiders) do not have quick access to anywhere we have students.”
In yet another enhanced security measure at DIS, the front office personnel now require photo identification for those wishing to enter the building. Dr. Creighton Eddings, one of three assistant principals at DIS, is leading efforts to keep the school, its students and staff safer. He recently attended a safety meeting with City of Charleston Mayor Joe Riley and Charleston Police Chief Greg Mullen, who explained that School Resource Officers have a new mission at the facilities in which they serve.
“(They) explained a paradigm shift for school resource officers,” said Eddings. “When they were first placed in schools they were more for internal safety and relationships with students. And the focus has shifted now to external safety and our protection against outside threats.”
The Berkeley County School District is also now requiring each school to complete a “Model Safe Schools Checklist” and a walk-through “safety audit” to ensure all facilities are properly protected.  A recent audit at DIS revealed the need to cut back landscaping around the building to enhance visibility.
“We walked the entire campus…through the three parts of the building and around the perimeter with representatives from many different departments at the district level,” said Eddings. “We reviewed our security camera locations and discussed things as minute as shrubbery…Those are routine things…But after an event like Connecticut, we want to make sure we revisit those things and if there are things we need to adjust, we do so.”
“We definitely look from a different perspective,” added French. 
At Hanahan High School, safety enhancements are also underway, according to Principal Ric Raycroft.
“We have a high level of alert,” he said. “But we have always viewed safety as a number one priority….We work diligently to provide an environment where (our students and staff) feel safe.”
A couple of slight changes have been made at Hanahan, Raycroft added, but significant enhancements are in the works pending approval. While he is keeping specific plans under wraps for security reasons, Raycroft did report that they have asked the Hanahan Police Department to step up patrols and have also installed a reception desk in the facility’s main lobby where all visitors must check in prior to entering the building. In addition, they are exploring a keyless entry system, increasing the number of security cameras on campus, and installing secure glass doors in the main lobby. It’s a delicate balance, said Raycroft, of the school’s attempts to keep their building secure while also offering a welcoming atmosphere.
“We don’t want a (prison-type) feeling in schools. We want to be inviting, but safety has to come first.”
A philosophy of “safety first” is behind a new effort by Mayor Riley and Chief Mullen to better protect area elementary schools. A plan approved by City of Charleston Council last week will bring clusters of police patrols to some 19 elementary school facilities across the city, including Daniel Island.  As part of the program, specially assigned officers will check in at schools periodically throughout the day. With recent national attention on outsiders who have brought violence in to schools, officers are turning their attention to new threats.
“I never thought about it being outside people coming in,” said Lt. Katrina Rivers, commanding officer at Team 5 on Daniel Island. “This does put another spin on it. It’s another avenue we have to make sure we are conscious of. That makes it even more challenging because now everybody is a suspect.”
At Daniel Island School, like the rest of the facilities across the district, it means remaining proactive and always being on the lookout for anything that could threaten the safety of students or staff members.
“I think we’ve always felt a heavy responsibility,” said French.
“It’s just a constant thing going on in our heads,” added Eddings. “That’s our protective nature. It’s part of being an administrator and an educator. It’s just how we operate. It’s definitely something we take very serious.

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