School security could use some help from Legislature, lawmaker says

2013-12-04T19:00:00Z 2013-12-04T23:50:25Z School security could use some help from Legislature, lawmaker saysBy JoANNE YOUNG / Lincoln Journal Star JournalStar.com

The Legislature's Education Committee is taking a look at security in Nebraska schools.

As the anniversary of the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., approaches, a number of people testified Wednesday on the need for enhanced school security.

For many, it's about being able find ways to afford technology and building changes while not taking money from instruction.

For others, such as Faith Hutcherson, a freshman at Lincoln East High School, it is about looking deeper for the true cause of school shootings — bullying and harassment of students and society's celebration of violence in the media and video games.

Hutcherson said it would cost nothing, and require no legislation, for people to raise standards of how they treat one another.  

Sarah Forrest, with Voices for Children in Nebraska, suggested more comprehensive approaches to school violence. What has been shown to be effective are approaches that take into account children's developmental needs and home experiences, she said.

Building relationships is important, as is access to mentors, counselors, therapists and behavioral health services. So are implementing new disciplinary approaches and conflict resolution, and providing training for school resource officers.

"Nebraska really needs to think holistically about the safety and security issues," Forrest said.

Joseph Wright, director of security for Lincoln Public Schools, said the issues schools face are nontraditional and will be difficult to solve with traditional funding sources.

Schools are faced with having to replace doors, windows, steps and offices that haven't worn out to create safer entries and hallways. The public expects camera systems in buses and buildings, and radio networks for better communication, Wright said.

"The cost for the above improvements as well as added personnel who would staff threat management teams, or be extra eyes and ears at athletic events, is well outside standard school budgets," he said.

More than 10,000 school and community functions are held each year at Lincoln schools after the last bell rings. That means security is a community issue, not just a district issue, he said.

LPS would include money in its proposed bond issue to enhance security in schools. Officials say about 30 public schools in Lincoln still do not have secured entrances, although they have people who check visitors in as they arrive.

The district would like each school to have visitor check-in areas separated by locked doors, security cameras and communication tools for crises, such as radios or phones in classrooms.

The interim study resolution (LR208) was brought by Omaha Sen. Rick Kolowski. In the 2013 session, he introduced a bill (LB346) to allow school boards with a two-thirds super-majority vote to raise their maximum levies by one cent to be used for school security improvements. The bill is stalled in the Revenue Committee.

Kolowski said the needs are great and the money usually short. The Legislature could help.

Steps that can be taken include creating a state grant program for security improvements, adjusting the school aid formula to allow schools to pay for security upgrades, and having the state Department of Education conduct a statewide assessment of school district security needs and their costs.

A state standard of school security could be developed from that assessment to be used as a target for state support.  

One of the nearly 50 shootings at schools, colleges and on school buses that have taken place in the past three years was at Millard South High School. An assistant principal and the student shooter died in the early 2011 incident, and the principal was seriously wounded.

Angelo Passarelli, administrator with Millard Public Schools, said the district has implemented more security measures since then, including a door buzzer system that locks doors during school hours.

A bond issue recently passed there includes $5 million for upgrades to the district's security, including a unified security system. A typical high school has 40 to 50 doors to monitor, Passarelli said.   

"All of these systems will help us, probably not totally make us impenetrable," he said. "It won't stop events like happened in 2011, but certainly will add to the layers of security that we have in our school system."

Reach JoAnne Young at 402-473-7228 or jyoung@journalstar.com -- You can follow JoAnne's tweets at twitter.com/ljslegislature.

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