School safety: How secure are our schools?

LAKE OSWEGO, Ore. - It was early April when Marti Long says she stopped by Lake Oswego Junior High School unannounced to check out the facility she had booked for a community function.

"I went down there looking for the office and couldn't find it, so I came back to the lobby and looked for someone, an adult," she said.

Long says she wandered the halls and became alarmed when no one stopped her.

She wrote an email to the school district about lax security and became so frustrated by what she perceived as a dismissive response that she contacted the On Your Side Investigators.

We wanted to see for ourselves what security was like at the school. Last Monday, I went with a KATU news photographer back to the school to see what security was like.

Inside the lobby we saw a sign that reads "Office", with an arrow pointing down a hallway. The sign was posted after Long complained; there are no other instructions for visitors.

We remained in the lobby for 10 minutes. Several staff members and students passed by, although no one questioned our presence while we had free access to the entire building. If we chose, we could have wandered the halls.

Donna Atherton is tasked with re-evaluating the district's security policies after the school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut.

"We always talk about safety and given the events that have occurred, we are redoubling our efforts," said Atherton, "We are checking at every nook and cranny in each building."

We then showed Atherton the undercover video of our visit and asked whether she thought the district dropped the ball on security.

"I don't think so. Again, it's one incident. I need to follow up on that - see what happened in that one incident. To make broad generalizations about dropping the ball or safety in our schools I think is inappropriate," said Atherton. "But are there always areas of improvement? I believe in any building that you have you have large numbers of people coming in and out of - yes, you're always going to have areas for improvement."

Long, whose kids will go to the junior high in the future, said the district isn't doing enough.

"Monitoring the front doors of every school in our district is the minimum I expect from our superintendent," she said.

School district policies

School districts across our area and the country are wrestling with how tight campus security should be.

After Newtown and the Clackamas Town Center shooting, the Oregon Department of Education reached out to districts to encourage a thorough review of safety policies.

In Portland Public Schools, all parents, visitors, vendors and contractors are requested to sign in at the school's main office immediately upon entering a school building. Building doors are secured throughout the day to control access; the district says its objective is not to inconvenience students' parents and the community, but rather to ensure that it protects students and staff.

A bond passed in 2008 allowed the Oregon Trail School District to upgrade security at all schools, including the new Sandy High School. The changes included automatic door-lock systems and security cameras. In Battle Ground, the district is installing additional security cameras over the next four years.

A school safety committee in Vancouver is scheduled to provide recommendations by the end of the school year; four security officers currently patrol the campuses, two are Vancouver city police officers, the other two come from the Clark County Sheriff's department.

The Beaverton district completed a safety review of its 30-plus elementary schools early in 2011. While budget limitations have meant officials have had to hold off on some large-scale renovations, the district started testing two video surveillance platforms that allow police and school officials to watch the halls in real-time.

Another pilot program overcame an older building's line-of-sight limitations by using a security camera and call button combination: closed circuit TV allows the school to decide if and when to buzz someone in, while other buildings in the district installed key-card access systems.

In the Tigard-Tualatin School District, some older schools were designed with open classrooms to encourage interactions between teachers and students. District spokesperson Susan Stark-Haydon said the district has measured classrooms for doors since the shootings in Newtown because of parent concerns. They plan to install doors this summer.

Like many districts, Lake Oswego has long prided itself on being open to the community.

On the day the KATU team visited Lake Oswego Junior High, the school board talked about its ongoing efforts to improve its safety plan with the cooperation of the Lake Oswego Police Department.

"One of the alarming things that kind of sets you back when we did the training is that they basically said, it's 7 to, what was it, 7 - 9 minutes before they'll be in your building, and almost everything happens in the first four?" said John Wendland, the school board chairman. "We cannot wait until the cavalry arrives."

In December, Superintendent Bill Korach pledged to improve the district's safety plan, while noting Lake Oswego isn't a hotbed of crime.

According to the Portland Tribune, Korach said there's, "a difference in terms of the kind of community that Lake Oswego is and the kind of community that some school districts have in Portland".

There's also a difference with individual schools in the Lake Oswego district when it comes to security. Lake Oswego High has modern safety features, like doors that can be locked by the push of a button in the office. The junior high does not have that feature.

Atherton and the district continue to study their safety plan and have a training seminar this week. This summer the police department will go through every school and make suggestions.

The district hopes to finalize its plans in August.

District security plans: