Lawrence district strives to make schools secure

Deadly rampage led to new restrictions

Five years ago, students at Lawrence secondary schools rarely saw armed guards roaming the halls.

Now, they’re a common sight.

“We have lots of them walking around the hallways, making sure everyone is in class when they’re supposed to be,” said Andy Lowder, a student at Lawrence High School, 1901 La.

In the five years since the massacre at Columbine High School in Colorado, lots of things have changed in Lawrence schools: In addition to armed guards — officially called “resource officers” at the high schools and junior highs they protect — there are security cameras, walkie-talkies, alarms and emergency plans.

“I think that it (Columbine) certainly heightened the awareness, the need to realize that there are students out there that are crying out for help, that there are situations, unfortunately, that happen despite all the best effort of everybody,” said LHS principal Steve Nilhas. “We know that the warning signs were there sometimes, but it’s hard to pick them up.”

Deadly shooting

The attack at Columbine remains the deadliest school shooting in U.S. history.

On April 20, 1999, two teenagers walked into Columbine High School in Littleton with guns, knives and bombs, and killed 12 students and a teacher before killing themselves. More than 20 students were wounded.

In response, schools across the nation adopted violence prevention and response programs.

Since the deadly shootings five years ago at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., each Lawrence high school and junior high has one armed police officer on duty during school. Students at Central Junior High School, 1400 Mass., talk with security resource officer Don Hicks outside the building after school.

While Columbine prompted schools to begin catching up on negligence regarding safety planning, progress has stalled, and schools are in a dangerous backslide, said Kenneth Trump, president of National School Safety and Security Services, a Cleveland consulting firm.

Administrators faced with a choice of hiring a security officer or a tutor are likely to go with a tutor because of the increasing emphasis on test scores, Trump said. And tight budgets leave teachers precious little time for crisis or anti-violence training.

“Because of our human nature, the reality is that we’re at high risk of not moving forward again until there’s another spate of high-profile (school violence) incidents,” he said.

‘Big John is here’

In Lawrence, there have been many improvements intended to keep schools safe, despite budget constraints.

“We have resource officers,” Nilhas said. “We have three security people who work the building and help us with maintaining the hallways. If there’s a situation that requires some adult intervention, often they’re called to help with that.”

“Big John” Nelson, one of the LHS security guards, said the biggest problem he had faced in almost four years on the job was “girl fights.”

“They see my face every day,” Nelson said. “I feel they know Big John is here. I think they feel safe.”

Technology has been employed, too.

“We also have a few security cameras in the school but not really very many, so it’s not like the school is heavily guarded by cameras,” Nilhas said.

More security cameras are expected in buildings across the district.

“What you’ll probably see, pending board approval, is more surveillance equipment,” said Rick Gammill, the district’s director of special operations, safety and transportation. “That’s something you can pretty much count on.”

The Lawrence Police Department recently completed a first-ever study of school safety issues in Lawrence and made four broad recommendations:¢ Install security cameras, so administrators can track who is in buildings.¢ Reconfigure offices to give personnel a direct line of sight to the front entrance of a building. Six of the district’s 22 buildings don’t have that.¢ Give administrators radios or cell phones for better communication. Seven buildings don’t have radio systems.¢ Eliminate portable classrooms because of vandalism and concerns during inclement weather. Also, it’s more difficult to track who enters portable classrooms.

A recent security audit of Lawrence public schools found many of the buildings have problems with views from inside the main office to the main doors. That’s important for staffers to control who goes in and out of the schools, and it’s something that can be helped with cameras.

Communication between the schools and the Lawrence Police Department also has been beefed up, partially thanks to “go boxes.”

The department has such a box for every school in the district. Inside is a crisis response plan, a map of the school, a list of names and emergency numbers, and a key to the particular school.

“They can grab it as they’re running out the door,” Gammill said of police. “They can start looking at the map, and they can look at who the people are they need to contact, so before they even arrive at our schools, they’re very well-prepared.”

The district also has developed crisis response plans for each school to cover a variety of situations.

Still, there are several security issues to be addressed at Lawrence public schools.

“We’ll be presenting a report to the board of education this summer that addresses several of those security needs that came out of the security audit,” Gammill said.

Breeding familiarity

But Nilhas and others said more than security equipment was needed to keep schools safe.

“The thing that is really important in making a safe school is the type of environment you create where students feel valued, where students are allowed to be treated as individuals, where students feel there is a place they can go to and a person they can go to, a caring adult,” Nilhas said.

Free State High School security officer Nyja Bonawitz, center, jokes with a student leaving school as her colleague Amy Farrell, left, looks on. Free State High School employs three security officers.

Scott Stidham, who teaches at-risk students, recalled a challenge from former LHS principal Dick Patterson.

“He challenged us as teachers to spend time out in the hallway in between classes, and go talk to 10 kids that you don’t have ‘gradebook control’ over,” Stidham said. “What we would do is just go say hi to some kid that you don’t even know and all of a sudden they feel a little connection to you and to the school instead of walking down the hall and no one even knows (they) exist.”

Dirk Wedd, an LHS physical education teacher, said it was important for teachers to be aware of and watch for warning signs.

“We have no idea most of the time what happened with a young person the day before,” he said. “There’s a lot of kids that wake up without breakfast. There are kids that wake up not knowing how they’re going to get to school. They wake up not knowing who’s in the house. Those are all factors that weigh in to what happens at school, and as a teacher you have to constantly get a feel for each and every student that’s in your class.”

For their part, LHS students say they’re not worried about a Columbine-like event occurring in Lawrence.

“I don’t even know anyone who carries a gun,” Lowder said. “Lawrence is a pretty safe town. I don’t hear of anything dealing with guns. The closest thing I’ve heard was in Kansas City — I mean, I know a lot of kids in Kansas City who carry guns.”

Lindsay Revenew, another LHS student, agreed that most students felt safe.

“We have walkie-talkies so that everyone can talk to each other. I think security here is real good,” Revenew said.