Locked doors, buzz-in systems for visitors part of tighter school security

Waiting to be buzzed in at G. Stanley Hall Elementary School in La Vista to see teacher Sarah Victor is her husband, Todd Victor, holding their 14-month-old daughter, Brynley.

Lori Kupfer now has the power to see around corners.

The architects who designed the main office at G. Stanley Hall Elementary School in LaVista provided no clear view of the front door. That meant that visitors in that more innocent era could wander in and out undetected — a major security no-no these days.

But this school year, everyone from a parent to a delivery driver will have to push a button on the wall outside to alert administrative assistant Kupfer of his presence before she will remotely trip the latch to open the door.

Kupfer will be able to see visitors using a video camera trained on the entry, and she can talk to them via intercom. The video screen is on her desk phone.

“I think it's nifty,” she said. “I think it's going to work out smooth.”

The new buzzer system is part of a security upgrade that Papillion-La Vista Public Schools launched in the aftermath of the massacre last December at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut.

The upgrade, which is being phased in districtwide, will bring the district in line with what the Elkhorn Public Schools and Omaha Catholic schools have done for years.

The trend in the Omaha area is toward this kind of entry system.

Officials in Millard Public Schools are laying plans to install a similar system, paid for with last spring's bond issue, though it won't be in place when students return to school Monday.

Until that system is up and running, Millard will have a new security policy for all schools.

“All doors will be locked, starting Monday, during school hours,” Millard spokeswoman Rebecca Kleeman said.

That's a change from last year, when one of the front doors was typically left open at each school.

School officials will monitor the front entrance. Each school may do it a little differently, depending on its specific needs, Kleeman said.

“We're asking parents to have some patience and work with us, and also to have proper ID ready. That will help,” she said.

Gretna Public Schools also will be locking all doors during the school day, with entry allowed via video intercom system. In the past, the front door was left open.

Gretna students will also have new security procedures for boarding school buses. The buses will be tracked with GPS devices. A student will swipe a card that will monitor where he boards and leaves the bus.

Gretna Superintendent Kevin Riley said the card system creates a more seamless safety and security coverage throughout the school day.

“Every once in a while, for example, a child will get off at the wrong place. This will allow us to keep much better track of all those types of things,” he said.

Nationally, student deaths at school remain exceedingly rare: Between July 1, 2010, and June 30, 2011, there were 11 homicides and three suicides of youths ages 5 to 18 in the nation's schools, according to federal statistics.

However, area school officials felt obliged to ramp up security after 20 children and six adults were killed at Sandy Hook. The attack made clear that elementary schools were vulnerable to the same horrors previously experienced at middle schools and high schools.

Jamie Boyer, principal at G. Stanley Hall, said the buzz-in system will provide peace of mind for parents and staff, but she knows the system isn't foolproof.

“It's just that one extra step,” Boyer said. “You can't stop everything, but can you take an extra step to provide those extra minutes, those extra seconds that could count?”

Beneath Kupfer's desk is a button she can push to lock the school's door and disable the card reader that lets teachers enter the building by swiping their cards.

Annette Eyman, spokeswoman for Papillion-La Vista Public Schools, said office workers are not expected to screen who gets in and who doesn't, except in situations where someone presents an obvious threat.

“It's really more to control access than it is to do some kind of profiling or screening,” Eyman said. “That's not the goal. The goal is to make sure that there's no one in the building that we don't know is in the building.”

Eventually, all schools in the district will be renovated so that visitors entering will have to be cleared by the office, she said.

When school starts Tuesday in Papillion-La Vista, four schools will have the new buzzer system: Carriage Hill, La Vista West, Parkview Heights and G. Stanley Hall.

In the fall, three more buildings will be done: Anderson Grove, Hickory Hill and Papillion-La Vista High School.

At Golden Hills, Tara Heights and Trumble Park Elementaries and La Vista and Papillion Junior High Schools, the buzzers will be installed as part of their renovations.

The district's newer elementaries will be the last to receive the systems.

“All of our newer elementaries have that direct line of sight from the office to the front door,” Eyman said.

In the meantime, the district will continue a procedure put in place last spring in which doors will be locked during the day and an employee will monitor and open the door, she said.

In Millard Public Schools, the security upgrades approved in the May 14 bond issue are still in the planning stages.

Existing classroom door locksets will be replaced with security locks that teachers can lock from the inside. Installation probably will start at the high schools, followed by middle and elementary schools. The work may begin yet this month, with a goal of having them in when students return after winter break.

The video buzzer systems will be installed, generally, at main entrances and loading dock doors at all buildings. Installation will start with the elementary buildings, followed by middle and then high schools.

The buzzer project is out for bid. District officials hope to have the systems installed before the start of the second semester.

In the Omaha Public Schools, security measures vary, said spokesman David Patton.

Some schools have buzz-in systems, while others station security personnel at the door or monitor the front door from the school office, Patton said.

In the Ralston Public Schools, schools will continue to keep a single front door open and monitored by staff. However, district officials are in discussion on whether to tighten security, said Kristi Gibbs, assistant superintendent.

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