Emporia Public Schools is proving its commitment to keeping staff and students safe, with multiple layers of security throughout district buildings.
Secured entryways, cyber-security, staff training and community partnerships all work together to make sure safety is the last thing students have to worry about.
In 2018, the Kansas State Legislature released funds for school districts to increase building security following the Feb. 14, 2018, shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, which killed 17 people and injured 17 others. The USD 253 Board of Education accepted a plan to install secure entryways at each school building — each installation requiring varying degrees of renovation.
Today, with Emporia High School’s new secure entrances in place, all school buildings are equipped with the secure entryway technology, with buildings locked throughout the day.
“Being a larger district than some of our surrounding districts, it was a little bit of a process of getting all buildings up and going and getting everybody on the same page,” Community Relations Director Lyndel Landgren said. “But I think it’s becoming the norm, and parents are seeing these safety mechanisms in place at other schools, and it’s sort of a normal progression.”
The transition to secure school buildings was a relatively smooth one, with parents and students responding positively to the security upgrades as each building went live.
“We sent out communication to all of the parents and posted on social media, and then when we went live with the locked doors, there was no trouble,” Landgren said. “It was all very smooth and very seamless. The process of not getting feedback and not hearing about problems, I think that’s very good from our standpoint.”
The success of the secure entryways is due in no small part to each building’s front office staff, said Assistant Superintendent of Human Resources Kelly Bolin.
“The group that really are so critical are our secretaries and front office staff,” she said. “It actually puts another layer on their shoulder of, ‘OK, I’m unlocking the door. I’m letting this person in.’ We really appreciate what they have done, because they have really taken that role seriously. They have talked to their administrators about it. They’ve put systems in place, so it’s not just letting anyone who has no business to be in the building in, but using some discretion as well.”
The next phase for secured entryways is installing additional fob entry devices for other doorways. That will be funded through an additional Kansas State Department of Education Safe and Secure grant.
“If kids are out on recess, we don’t want doors propped open because that’s a breach of security, but yet we want kids to be able to get back in,” she said. “Making some of those doors have some fob entryways will help us keep those buildings more secure, and we definitely want that.”
The district is also preparing for more infrastructure improvements that will enhance overall safety, thanks to last year’s successful bond referendum. Those improvements include the construction of high-wind shelters in all buildings. Currently, Riverside and Timmerman elementary schools are the only buildings within the district to have those types of shelters.
“The high-wind shelters are dual-purpose spaces — meaning they can be the gymnasium, a classroom, music room — but they will also have reinforced walls that can handle high winds,” Bolin said. “The walls are greater than 11 inches thick with concrete, and the space will be able to accommodate all the students and staff, should there be a need for that. It’s an amazing safety layer that we need to have for our students.”
Bolin said administrators were grateful that Emporia voters have enabled the school district to implement greater safety standards for students and staff in the event of a high-wind event, such as a tornado.
“We want to know that, if a tornado comes through town, that there’s a secure location our children can go that’s safe,” she said. “Back in the day, we were all going under a desk or covering our heads in the hallways. There are better ways, and I’m just appreciative that the voters saw that as a priority, because on a personal level, I think that it’s important for our kids to have somewhere safe to go. The weather is wacky. This helps.”
“For the voters to approve the bond by 64 percent is really encouraging, just to see that they see the need for those things, as well — keeping our kids safe,” he said.
In an increasingly digital world, increases to safety and security also require upgrades and improvements to cyber-security measures. Bolin said USD 253’s IT staff has worked hard to meet the changing technological landscape with procedures that keep data secure from inbound attacks.
The district uses a firewall and other network equipment to keep its systems secure, with antivirus software installed on every computer to prevent the installation of malicious software.
“I think it’s nice to know that we do have firewalls in place protecting student data,” Bolin said. “We are consciously making decisions to protect our students’ data, and data can be anything from things our kids write for class [to grades]. It’s nice to know that we have a tech department that will do that for us. You really realize just how many layers of security there are.”
The IT department also provides training to other district staff members to equip them to not fall victim to phishing and other exploitative tactics that might compromise data.
“They are vigilant in making sure everything is secure,” Landgren added.
Perhaps the most important aspect of school safety is multiple community organizations working together through training opportunities and partnerships to provide the safest environment possible for students and staff.
The Multidisciplinary Safety Team consists of representatives from each school, district department, law enforcement and first responders, Department of Children and Families, Community Corrections and others as needed. The group meets monthly to discuss the state of the district’s safety and security progress.
One component of those meetings has been the development of the district’s Threat Assessment Protocol — a policy intended to prevent violence against themselves or others by a student or staff member through assessment and intervention. Bolin said the district’s policy has been modeled after a guidebook provided by the Department of Homeland Security.
“We had, for many years, had a suicide risk assessment, and so, we thought we were creating a risk assessment,” she said. “As we moved in through this, we really dropped back and said, ‘We really are creating a threat assessment.’”
The threat assessment is not designed to be punitive in nature, but rather provide a holistic solution for reaching out to children who are at risk. Since it was implemented last year, Bolin said 10 - 15 students have been successfully identified with the policy.
“It’s about connecting them with someone who can help,” she said. “That might be through mental health, that might be through a mentor, that might be by making their parents aware. It’s really holistically looking at that child and deciding what their risk is for hurting themselves and others and making a plan for making sure that doesn’t happen.”
In June, the team facilitated a tabletop exercise for the district’s administrators, office staff, counselors, custodians and teachers to help put them through the threat assessment protocol in action.
During the exercise, groups were asked to discuss their plan of action for a scenario based on information given throughout the exercise. The goal, Bolin said, was to drive home the point that all district employees should feel capable of reporting an issue.
“It’s about empowering people to take action,” she said.
Bolin said the collaborations with other community organizations is a powerful tool. The district is working on upgrading its radios used to communicate with the Emporia Police Department, Lyon County Sheriff’s Office and Emporia Fire Department, to work with the upcoming 800 mhz communications upgrades.
Landgren and Bolin said that the district always does its best to communicate with the public during emergency situations. The top priority, however, is always going to be maintaining the safety of students within its buildings before public information is released.
“First, we need to notify students and staff within the facility, and then we take a look at notifying district personnel that need to know,” Bolin said. “Once we need to take care of what we need to do for safety, then we drop back and communicate with parents. I know that’s hard, but that’s what we all do in emergency situations. We make sure that our loved ones are safe and then we call someone. That time period is hard for parents, but I cannot enforce enough that they will hear from someone in the district.”
In the end, Bolin said all of the procedures and improvements are about remembering what’s important.
“Our ‘why’ is to educate students, to prepare them to be students for tomorrow,” she said. “We want safety and security procedures in place that allow them to learn, to continue to grow, to continue to welcome their parents in, to continue to embrace community events in our schools, but to have this layer of protection that’s in place should we ever need it. And we hope we never do.”