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School Security

Eleanor May-Patterson, orchestra teacher at Morningside Elementary School in Sioux City, scans a key card at the security device Tuesday to unlock the door at the school. The device is also equipped with a camera and an intercom system to allow visitors to be buzzed in.

SIOUX CITY | Roughly 80 to 100 times per day, a parent or other visitor will wait outside the single public entrance to the Woodbury Central K-12 building in Moville, Iowa, waiting to be let in after hitting a buzzer on the door.

At Woodbury Central and in other Siouxland districts, school personnel check monitors linked to security cameras to see who's waiting.

In some schools, the employees use an intercom to ask questions about the person, who could be a parent, business vendor or visiting education specialist.  The decision on who gets buzzed in is made hundreds of times a day in larger school districts.

All those steps are part of a commitment to ensure safety for the hundreds of students in the buildings, to avert harm by intruders who might fire guns or take other threatening actions. Over the past 16 years, ever since high-profile school shootings in Columbine, Colorado, New Town, Connecticut, and other U.S. cities, Siouxland schools have increasingly ramped up security plans, adding cameras and call-in systems and often limiting access to one entrance.

The most recent school shooting in the tri-state region occurred Sept. 30, when the principal at Harrisburg (South Dakota) High School suffered a flesh wound in a handgun shooting by a student.

Sioux City School District spokeswoman Alison Benson said the district hasn't had any school shootings, going back decades, and that the existing security plans are effective in keeping students safe.

Every Sioux City school has cameras trained on every door, even those that can't be used during the school day, plus other cameras inside and outside the buildings. In planning an appropriate response to possible danger, mock drills for various possible incidents take place at least yearly in concert with the Sioux City Police Department, Sioux City Fire Rescue and Woodbury County Sheriff's Office, Benson said.

She said the district doesn't keep IT reports summarizing how many times people are buzzed into the Sioux City schools. And she said she has no qualms about the decisions by secretaries using the buzz-in system. She said the routine is to ask visitors their name and purpose at the school.

"As a parent, I have complete confidence that my kids are safe," Benson said.

Renee Baker, who has two children attending Irving Elementary School, said when she goes to the building during the day, she will be asked her name over the entrance intercom. Baker thinks the personnel reviewing people at the door don't always ask enough questions, including purpose of the visit.

"Anybody can say, 'Yeah, I'm here to pick up my kid from school,' and they are gonna let you in," Baker said. "They need to grill more, do more questioning."

Baker likes a change made at Irving this school year. She said after people go through the doors, they are blocked from accessing the hallways and classrooms. The entrance now leads them straight to a school office, where school staffers check them in.

Lawton-Bronson (Iowa) School District Superintendent Jeff Thelander said 70 to 80 people are buzzed into his district's two buildings on a typical day. The typical numbers are 50 people at the Bronson elementary school and 20 to 30 at the Lawton middle school and high school.

Thelander said the system is working well with secretaries making decisions about who gets in. He said most school visitors are well-known in the tightly knit district and that parents are by far the most typical patrons coming to the elementary building.

"If there was ever a question of someone out there, they would alert an administrator," Thelander said.

Thelander said an increasing number of cameras have been added over the past three years, to the point that hallways, not just entrances, are extensively covered.

Lawton-Bronson seventh-grader Christian Cortez said he gets concerned when he hears about school shootings across America. Twenty children and six adults were killed in the December 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. There were 74 additional reported school shootings in the following 18 months, through mid-2014, according to statistics compiled by the Everytown for Gun Safety group.

"I get kind of nervous, because it would be easy to come over here and do the same. It would be very terrible," Cortez said.

Cortez said he liked that L-B officials early in the year held a drill that involved the appropriate response to a gun in the school. He said that planning and the fact that teachers have told students that cameras are constantly running give him a sense of ease.

"(Cameras) make me feel very secure, especially the doors and how they lock," Cortez said.

In the South O'Brien (Iowa) School District, the elementary school in Primghar has 18 cameras and the secondary school in Paullina has 21. South O'Brien Superintendent Dan Moore said the entrances are limited to one door in Primghar and three in Paullina for the older students. People coming to the South O'Brien schools don't have to be buzzed in, although they are asked to immediately report to the main office to obtain a visitor badge.

Moore said he's not planning to add a buzz-in system, although he recognizes other schools have it.

"You can be secure and still be very open to the public," Moore said.

The system was in place before Moore became superintendent seven years ago, and he said there are regular checks to make sure security plans work well. To that end, the Primghar building is getting a new entrance by the start of the 2017-18 year, and Moore said people will go straight into an office rather than gaining hallway access.

"We feel secure with what we have, and we look to make improvements if we need to," Moore said.

Similarly, Benson said that as Sioux City keeps adding new elementary schools, they are planned with the most current security systems possible.

"It is that constant of being aware and seeking improvement," Benson said.

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County & Education Reporter

Government and education reporter.

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