Many Utah schools weren’t built with security threats in mind, but renovations are costly
SALT LAKE CITY – Brightly colored student artwork adorns the walls behind a brand-new addition to an elementary school in the Granite School District.
“We have had situations where angry parents try to come on to the campus and get frustrated at the door situation,” said communications director Ben Horsley.
The door situation he’s referring to is a more than $1 million renovation project that created a secure, single entry point vestibule. The update is meant to give officials control over who is entering the building and represents a significant change to the school’s original layout.
“You used to actually have to walk into the building and walk into the front office over here,” Horsley said, pointing down a hallway past the new secure entry point. “And then they would immediately have access to the rest of the building, and that’s not acceptable in the current climate and circumstance.”
He recalled a situation in which a parent who did not have custody of their biological child once entered the school, assaulted an employee, and kidnapped the student. The incident, while frightening, ended with the child unharmed.
“We actually see those kind of situations crop up a whole lot more than, fortunately, what we’ve seen come out of Texas,” said Horsley, referencing Tuesday’s deadly mass shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas.
Still, the school’s new front office location and secured entry point are intended to thwart an active shooter situation as well.
The security renovation was funded through a 2017 bond approved by taxpayers.
“Most of our schools were built decades ago, long before tragic events across the country led to discussions about increased student safety,” the district’s website explained. “The bond will provide security upgrades to better protect against intrusions.”
In 2018, Horsley showed KSL another security feature headed to elementary schools called the School Gate Guardian System. The digital sign-in system conducts instant background checks to flag sex offenders. At the time, Horsley estimated every elementary school in the district could have the new system within two years.
Now, four years later, he said the district has yet to install about a dozen of those screening systems.
“There have been some delays,” he said.
Wednesday, Horsley said two other schools currently have secure entryway projects under construction. Seven more elementary schools are still in need of security renovation.
“These things cost money,” he said. “They cost a lot of money.”
When asked what’s causing the delays, Horsley explained the cost and expediency of construction work has changed significantly since taxpayers approved the bond package.
“A lot of these things are delayed by virtue of, a project that cost over a million dollars in in our current time, a few years ago, might have been $600,000 or $700,000,” he said. “Inflationary construction costs have gone up anywhere between 50 to 80 percent. We have trouble getting people to even bid on our projects because of the current construction climate.”
In order to prioritize projects, Granite School District officials have had to identify the most urgent areas of need.
“When you see what’s happening on the news, you just can’t help but wonder and be concerned. And so, we did prioritize all of our projects that are security related, based on actual threats and data,” said Horsley.
Several construction projects unrelated to security have been delayed by seven to nine years, according to the district’s website, but Horsley said they’re still tackling security-related projects as fast as they can.
Wednesday, Granite School District released a list of other safety measures in place, including:
- Single access entry (where possible) with key card access for employees including on all exterior buildings/relocatable doors.
- ID badge/visitor badge requirements so everyone is easily identifiable on our campuses.
- Over 5000+ security cameras districtwide monitored by a 24/7 dispatch center.
- In addition to local police school resource officers (SROs), we have 24 Granite District Police Department SROs to help provide security and coverage to the entire district.
At the state level, the Utah State Board of Education School Safety Center was established in 2019, tasking a group of law enforcement, education and mental health professionals with pursuing support and resources for healthy and safe school environments.
“We need to look at school safety through a comprehensive lens,” said student and school safety specialist Rhett Larsen. “We shouldn’t leap into assumptions that the issue is just guns, or the issue is just mental health concerns.”
Larsen said Tuesday’s mass shooting in Texas left him “heartbroken,” but he wanted to assure Utah parents that steps are being taken to keep students here safe.
“When tragic events like this happen, you know, it can skew school safety and make us feel like our schools are not safe,” said Larsen. “Data shows that our schools are generally safe spaces.
When asked about the greatest areas of concern in Utah’s schools, Lt. Nick Street said, “The Department of Public Safety loses sleep at night, thinking of that question.”
Street, who is part of the Statewide Information Analysis Center’s threat management unit, said across the state, school infrastructure remains a concern.
“We like to try to encourage environmental design that can save lives and provide safety should, you know, God forbid, we ever have a horrific school shooting here in our state,” he explained. “But with that environmental design comes a cost.”
Many schools weren’t built with an understanding of the safety threats students and educators face today, he said, and some rural communities lack the necessary tax base or support to implement significant security upgrades.
“I think the state of Utah does really good to mitigate those areas where we might be lacking,” he said.
Both Street and Larsen encouraged parents to have conversations with their children about safety, monitor their social media use, and become familiar with the SafeUT app.
“If you will look at the school shootings, almost always they have been leaked to other students,” Larsen said. “Somebody knows that that’s going to happen. We need to continue to highlight the SafeUT program. If you see something, say something.”
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