Protecting Plano

“We now interrupt regular programming for this breaking news story; there has been another shooting in a school . . .”

These words have forever changed the way Americans view their public schools. Gone is the perception that the schoolhouse is a haven where kids can be dropped off in the morning and picked up in the afternoon with never a thought to their safety.

Educators, parents and community leaders now accept the fact that no institution — schools and churches included — is exempt from the perils of society. We now understand that, generally speaking, if you find a problem in the community you will also find it in that community's schools.

With this realization has come fear. Parents are vocal in their demands that the board of education be proactive in providing a safe and secure environment for their students. Teachers and administrators are equally vocal in demanding a workplace free of violence and intimidation. These expectations are both reasonable and obtainable. The question is, how? Metal detectors, cameras, access control, radios, police officers, and drug dogs? How much is too much? Where do we cross the line and start causing fear, rather than instilling a feeling of security?

The truth is that there is no one answer, just as there is no guarantee of safety. But there are answers and steps that we can take to provide a reasonable level of protection for our students and staff.

In Plano, Texas, we started with an assessment of the threat by asking what a study of the national incidents showed us and what actions could we take that would provide the best level of protection and be most cost-effective?

We found that all of the acts of violence started with a person gaining access to the students. In most instances this was accomplished by invading the school building, although there were instances where students were shot on playgrounds or when exiting the building.

Building protection and access control quickly came to the top of our list. Limiting the ability of a person to get a firearm into the school was also discussed. Access control had to be the cornerstone of our equipment plan. Cameras, panic alarms and radios would also be incorporated into the equipment plan.

We also recognized the need for programs: mandatory criminal history checks for every individual having an opportunity to be alone with our students, specially trained dogs to provide interdiction on drugs and weapons, police officers in the buildings, emergency planning and a cooperative security operations/student discipline plan.

Working with parents, students and local law enforcement, a comprehensive security plan was developed, incorporating both programs (personnel) and systems (equipment). The components and cost of that plan (for school year 1999 2000) are as follows.

* Police Liaison Program $287,003

The district has assigned a police officer to each secondary campus. These officers are specially trained to interact with the students, serving as counselors, confidants and role models.

Naturally the police officers will always act to protect life and property, the primary focus of the program is to develop a rapport between the student and the officer. It is hoped that the student will grow to view the officer as someone to be trusted and supported. Obviously, society benefits from students who carry this relationship into their adult lives.

* Traffic and Security $667,000

The district employs officers who are assigned to the campuses for security and traffic control. These officers are expected to enforce the image and relationship formulated by the liaison officer, but with a primary focus on security, law enforcement and traffic control.

* Special Event Security $263,000

The district assigns uniformed officers to every event, on or off campus, that involves students or district staff. This includes athletic events, school socials, campus fundraisers and graduation.

* Drug Dogs $39,000

The district contracts with a private company to provide dogs trained to detect drugs, alcohol and the nitrates found in gunpowder. Working within guidelines set by the courts, these dogs make several unannounced visits each year to district facilities.

* Security Systems $211,136

Metal detectors were considered and rejected because of their relative ineffectiveness in open environments like school buildings, as opposed to confined areas like courtrooms or the gate areas of airports. The expense of operation was also a consideration.

The decision was made to equip each building with intrusion alarms, on-line and offline access control systems, CCTV systems, hold-up and panic alarms and a security communications system.

District guidelines require every building to be locked down during school hours. On-line access control is provided by a DSX system that is monitored and controlled remotely. Both keypads and card readers are employed.

The system includes a "front entry package," consisting of a camera, monitor, VCR, call button, speaker, and key pad and door release. Non-employee visitors approach the front door, press the call button and are interviewed and visually inspected by the receptionist. Once the visitor gives a legitimate reason for entry, the receptionist presses the door release and allows him or her into the office. The visitor signs a log and is issued a badge to be worn while in the building.

District employees have codes that will allow them access through the keypad. Every employee is required to wear a district-issued identification badge with his or her photo, name and campus assignment. The staff has been trained to stop and escort to the office persons not wearing a badge.

Battery-operated locks that require a numerical code for entry provide Offline access control. The locks will accept up to 300 codes, will print out the last 500 transactions for audit and can be programmed to allow or deny access by hour or day. These locks are most often used at employee entrances, especially those located near the staff parking lots. The advantage of these offline locks is that they do not need a phone line for reporting to a remote location and there is no monthly monitoring fee.

The CCTV system consists of both multiplexed and stand-alone systems. The multiplexed system covers hallways, parking lots, remote entrances, cafeterias, student centers and other common areas within the buildings. The stand alone systems are installed in the reception area (with audio), in on-campus alternative education centers, and other special needs areas.

Panic alarms are installed in selected areas where employees deal with angry patrons, or face other high risk situations. Some special assignment employees wear personal alert alarms. Hold-up alarms are installed in athletic ticket sales and other areas where employees deal with cash. The devices sound a local alarm (via a monitor in an office area) and at the central station. Officers are immediately dispatched to investigate all alarms.

* Training/Planning $12,000

Every principal and campus administrator has a copy of the district's emergency procedures manual. The manual assigns responsibility and gives a step-by-step guide for handling emergencies such as bomb threats, shootings, explosions, threats, intruders, natural disasters and others.

* Campus Crime Watch — no cost

The district has involved the students in an effort to provide a secure environment for education. Each secondary campus has a crime watch program operated and managed by students. The programs have been successful in the interdiction of weapons and drugs, as well as identifying those responsible for crimes occurring on and off campus.

The implementation of this plan has caused changes in the way things are done in Plano ISD. There have been complaints about delays caused by the access control system, about having to wear a badge and about the presence of cameras and uniformed officers. But overall, the plan has been successful and accepted for what it is — an effort to provide a level of protection with minimal intrusion into student life.

Kenneth Bangs is the Director of Safety and Security for the Plano Independent School District in Texas.