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Safe Schools: Many Utah districts implementing new safety measures

SALT LAKE CITY – School safety has risen to a top priority in nearly every Utah district. Even before the Parkland shooting, schools were budgeting millions, retrofitting buildings and conducting safety drills.

Since that tragedy, the pace of implementing safety measures has rushed to a sprint.

“Unfortunately, it’s come to that. But we’re here and so we have to adapt to those times to keep our children safe,” said Park City Police Chief Wade Carpenter.

The Park City School District is just one of many examples where big changes are underway. This small district is spending $4 million to overhaul school entrances and build perimeter fences around some of the elementary schools.

“A lot of districts already have a lot of these things,” said District Spokeswoman Melinda Colton. “In Park City, we’ve always really prided ourselves that we’re fairly open.”

Not anymore. Most large districts have high-tech options that limit entry into schools.

At Pony Express Elementary in Alpine District, the exterior doors lock at the start of school. Visitors come to a video camera system at the front doors where the school secretary can see who wants to enter. Once she clears them, she buzzes open the door. Alpine has similar “door bell” or video camera entry systems in 36 elementary schools. They are working now to expand those to secondary schools.

For many parents, the security brings relief.

“The more that the school can do to help them feel safe and help them feel like they are at a secure environment while they’re here, the better,” says PTA President Hilary Bolander.

“We all know that in order for learning to occur, we have to have safe schools,” added Kimberly Bird, a spokeswoman for the Alpine District.

Granite District is implementing another high-tech system. Visitors enter the schools into the main office area and to the School Gate Guardian computer. This sign in does an instant check to determine if the visitor is on the sex offender registry before the school secretary provides entry.

“This allows us to get that information as well, which provides an additional layer of security for students,” says Granite Spokesman Ben Horsley.

The School Gate Guardian system is already in one-third of Granite’s elementary schools and will be installed in every elementary over the next two years.

Many districts have drastically increased the number of surveillance cameras in their schools. Jordan District has doubled the number in every building. And these cameras are shooting in high definition, which makes the video much more helpful in solving and deterring crimes.

They’ve also beefed up entry-way security with double doors that route visitors right into main offices. They’ve completed work on all elementary schools. They’re halfway done with junior highs and work starts soon on the high schools.

As schools come of age, administrators hope the same will be true of parents and other visitors.
Just last week, police arrested a man in the Canyons District who got angry when a school secretary wouldn’t let him check out students without authorization.

Police had to escort him out of the building and eventually arrest him for aggressive behavior.

“We don’t have to like it. And we don’t expect our parents to like it, but we hope that they will support us.” Said Colton of Park City School District.

School leaders also hope that support includes paying for all this protection. It isn’t cheap.

The door system at just one Granite elementary can cost anywhere from several hundred thousand dollars to two million dollars, depending on the renovation.

Alpine District is spending nearly $700,000 on elementary security. Retrofitting the lobby of one elementary can cost up to $100,000.

2017 Bond and levy monies are helping speed up safety upgrades at some schools.

Wayne School district, for example, asked the community to pass a levy so they could hire a social worker, in addition to their school counselor. It passed and they are now in the hiring process.

Given cost constraints, many districts are boosting the low-cost, low-tech aspect of school safety by working more closely with law enforcement and school resource officers.

Wasatch School District has now put two officers in their high school. Murray school district has full-time resource officers in secondary schools and are working on a presence for their elementary schools. Emery School district recently added a resource officer to its elementary schools.

And in Park City, Officer Trent Jarman makes it a goal to put seven miles of walking every day on his Fitbit. The department is enhancing their visibility in district schools by encouraging officers to do their reports in the lunch room or in the hall.

They and many Utah districts believe officers on the inside of locked doors will help just as much as the secured entries.

“I want the kids to know me. I want them to see that they are safe, that this is the best environment that they can possibly have,” said Officer Jarman.

“That’s the reason the school resource officer program is so important, because they have an advocate in the school,” added Chief Carpenter. “Those relationships forged early on, those relationships of trust go a long ways as we move forward.”

For a list of the security priorities and measures for most of Utah’s school districts, click here.

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