Olathe schools following federal recommendations for school safety

OLATHE, Kan. - The deadly Jewish Campus Shootings in April serve as a wake-up call for many in Johnson County including school officials. Olathe is among the districts adopting federal recommendations to let students and staff evacuate during a shooting if it’s safer than hiding.

“The new best practice nationally and recently, obviously as the Sandy Hook shootings was, we have to give staff more options,” Assistant Superintendent for Olathe Schools Dr. Erin Dugan said. “Lockdown is still great – barricade the door and if you can, based on good info, get your kids and leave. Statistics are in the favor of evacuation so it's really kind of cutting edge.”

After the 2012 shooting deaths of 26 students and staff at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn., the Department of Education and the Department of Homeland Security came out with new recommendations  within the past year for schools to train teachers on when and how to evacuate during an active shooting.

“The staff come to us and say thank you. It didn't feel right hiding, waiting for maybe the bad guy to come in and the police to maybe save us,” Dr. Dugan said, who added that Olathe schools will have all teachers and staff trained by the start of the new school year.

The head of security at Shawnee Mission Schools agrees with the new federal guidelines.

“If that teacher thinks that's the right thing to do using their judgment, it would be my recommendation to let him or her take the kids away.  Get them outside.  Get them away from the threat,” Shawnee Mission Director of Safety and Security John Douglass said.

Douglass has experience dealing with shootings.  He responded to the deadly Jewish Campus Shootings last month, just days before his planned retirement as Overland Park Police Chief.

New Security Cameras & Pinch Points

Besides training staff on when to evacuate during a shooting, schools are also beefing up security to try to prevent a shooter from entering the building.

“Public safety officials made a lot of changes in their protocols and schools have been slower to come on board,” Dugan said, referring to the 1999 Columbine shooting in Colorado.

After a bond passed last year, Olathe had money to upgrade all of its schools by this fall with new security cameras and “pinch points” – two sets of locked doors that force visitors to identify themselves through surveillance cameras to enter and then are checked once more before going inside the front office.

“Part of our push with this bond was we want to get all of our school safe now,” Dr. Dugan said, who helps oversee the largest school district in the Kansas City metro, with 29,000 students and 4,300 staff throughout Olathe schools.

Finding Balance

Adding the latest technology is designed to help keep students and staff safe, but school officials also stress they don't want to turn their buildings into fortresses.

“Somewhere we've got to find the appropriate balance between convenience and security,” Douglass said, “We’ve got to remember, the major reason to have a school is to educate the children.  So, if we encumber them with so many things they can't do that, what's the point?”

Douglass supports Shawnee Mission’s plan to add pinch points and upgrade cameras in certain schools. Sixteen of them will receive security enhancements over the summer; most of those are elementary schools. We asked Douglass how to decide which schools need pinch points and which ones don’t.

“Well, there are some schools that have so many entrances that a pinch point just isn't going to be effective,” Douglass said, who mentioned his first priority is overhauling and simplifying the district’s Emergency Operation Plan. “The best way to stop these events is not the physical security. If you're fighting the battle on the perimeter you're already halfway lost.”

Proactive vs. Reactive

Shawnee Mission and Olathe school officials also ask parents to do their part just like other districts do.

“Natural surveillance, when things look suspicious, calling 911,” Dr. Dugan said. “We can't get complacent because we put up a camera, because we buzz you in, we have a pinch point, none of those are fool proof.”

Many schools in the Kansas City Metro notify parents of emergencies through e-mail and text messages.  Some districts, like KCPS, are also trying mobile apps for alerts and let parents send in a heads-up on potential threats.  KCPS also told 41 Action News it plans on upgrading security at certain buildings this summer with new door alarms and surveillance cameras along with installing staff card access control entry points.

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