February 5, 2013
Detroit Free Press
By Lori Higgins
Detroit Free Press Education Writer
|Cattaneo leaves the school after his patrol. |
He makes stops twice daily at more than a dozen
schools in the Utica district.
"Now that there is a Taser," Cattaneo told John, who bent over to get a closer look.
All across Michigan, heightened awareness about school security -- spurred by the December school shooting in Newtown, Conn. -- has prompted district leaders to review their policies. In many cases, they are taking additional steps that include keeping school doors locked, monitoring entrances and employing unarmed security guards or partnering with police to make regular patrols.
If Lee Gasowski needs to visit her daughter's Sterling Heights school, for example, she has to press a buzzer at the entrance, tell an office staff member why she's there, then hold her driver's license up to a camera. A similar security system is being piloted at Pierce Middle School in Birmingham and will be installed in buildings across Plymouth-Canton Community Schools by March 1.
"I like it," said Gasowski, whose daughter Julie, 9, is a fourth-grader at Browning Elementary in Utica Community Schools. "I'm glad they're doing whatever they can."
It has been a week since officers such as Cattaneo began making twice daily stops at more than a dozen schools in the Utica district. For some students, it's a welcome step.
"Having the presence of a police officer just automatically makes me feel safer," said Rachel Lee, 13, an eighth-grader at Jeannette.
School leaders find themselves walking a fine line between adding security and not creating fear among parents and students.
"School is hard," Jeannette principal Ken Cucchi said. "That's enough for (students) to worry about. ... Anything we can do to make them feel safe ... and get them focused on education, that's the most important thing."
|On his way to class Friday, John Saranas, an eighth-grader|
at Jeannette Junior High in Sterling Heights, stops to talk
with Sgt. Dave Cattaneo after giving him a high-five.
Cattaneo tells students: "Be studious." /
PHOTOS BY ANDRE J. JACKSON/DETROIT FREE PRESS
The district has hired security guards as it assesses more-permanent steps that could include a buzzer entry system.
Michelle Genord, whose four children attend school in the Chippewa district, said the district has hit the right note.
"They've taken enough action to show ... they are aware of the changing times, but without making it so bad that the kids are upset about it," Genord said.
Visible changesCattaneo's marked police car was parked in front of the entrance of Jeannette on Friday. Inside, his visit -- which typically lasts about 10 to 15 minutes -- consists of checking in with the main office and patrolling the halls. Among his stops is the cafeteria, where he interacts with many of the kids, high-fiving them and giving them fist-pumps. He even has a catchphrase: "Be studious."
The only place he doesn't go is inside the classroom. He said it would be too disruptive.
The visit, Cattaneo said, is all about creating visibility. "We want people to know a police officer is here," he said. Julia Beleshi, 13, said she appreciates the school's efforts.
"You know that the school cares about you and that you're safe," she said.
Also important, said ninth-grader Nasser Nassrallah, 14, is that the school has been open.
"We don't want to feel like they're hiding anything from us," Nasser said.
The Utica district is spending an estimated $400,000 to outfit 37 buildings with the new system.
Jeannette should be getting its new security system installed within the month, Cucchi said. For now, doors are locked. A staff member greets people at the main entrance, requiring them to produce identification and sign a visitors log. Each visitor gets a badge, even Cattaneo.
Training and drills
News media reports indicate the Newtown shooter, Adam Lanza, shot his way into the locked school building. The school had the same type of security system many metro Detroit districts are considering. That a mass shooting could happen under those conditions makes clear that it's impossible to prevent all types of violence, many say.
But Keith Wunderlich, superintendent in the New Haven School District, said the Newtown shootings could have been worse had Sandy Hook Elementary School not had locked doors and a buzzer system.
"People were aware there was an issue immediately," he said. "And people went into emergency action."
Experts and school officials say preparation is key.
School drills used to prepare students and staff for tornados and fires. Now they're preparing them for shootings.
All the schools in Birmingham went through lockdown drills last week, reminding students and staff of what to do when all doors are locked and access to and from the building is restricted. Similar drills have occurred in other districts.
In Oakland County, demand was so great for training offered Jan. 24 by Oakland Schools, the Oakland County Homeland Security Division and the Oakland County Sheriff's Office that more sessions have been scheduled for Feb. 11 and Feb. 19.
Dave Lessel, assistant principal at Waterford Mott High School, was among the participants at the first session. The training left him feeling that the school "is on the right track." He said the key is making sure people don't panic in a crisis.
"Obviously, emotions will rise, but they won't panic," Lessel said. "They will fall back on the training."
Participants learned a three-step process: communicating with staff and students about the need to take cover, then hiding or barricading themselves; leaving the building if possible and heading to a predetermined area, and being prepared to act against an intruder by any means if they can't run.
Next stepsMadison Heights Superintendent Randy Speck said one thing lost in the discussion about locking doors and hiring security guards is the need to look at the actual design of school buildings.
He predicted that the schools of the future would be designed with security in mind -- perhaps with a waiting area where visitors would have to provide identification before being allowed into the school through a second set of locked doors.
"Our job isn't just to teach kids," he said. "Our job is to have a safe place to teach kids."
Contact Lori Higgins: 313-222-6651 or firstname.lastname@example.org