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Viewpoint: Balancing safety and positive school environments

Starting school after the winter break always brings a mix of excitement for the second half of the year and dismay that the mid-year break is over. We ended 2012 with another reminder of the stark reality that schools are not impervious to violent acts; heinous acts that challenge our sense of civility, security and fairness.

The enormity of the tragedy in Newtown, Conn., brings more questions than answers. How could something like that happen? What would cause people to perpetuate that kind of cruelty? How can we keep our kids safe at school? How effective are our current policies and procedures? How can we develop the positive and welcoming atmosphere in our schools and classrooms that help students flourish but at the same time restrict access to our buildings? How do we maintain an environment that ensures that people with intent to harm others are not allowed to succeed?

As educators we have been faced with these questions far too many times. We have seen too many violent acts occurring in our schools. I want you to know that we take the question of school security seriously. We take it seriously as educators and as parents who send our own kids to school each and every day. We know that the safety of your children is our responsibility. I want to summarize what we have been doing in terms of safety and security, what we will continue to do, as well as what changes we are considering moving forward.

We have a safety manager who spends a significant portion of his day focused on our safety policies and procedures. We review our emergency preparedness plan on an on-going basis. We modify the plan as needed when situations change or advancements in preparedness are identified and recommended by law enforcement personnel. We follow the FEMA Emergency Management Cycle and the Homeland Security and Emergency Management Comprehensive School Safety Guide to help us ensure that we have a comprehensive and effective plan. Last year we began a comprehensive review of our emergency plan. We contracted with a consultant in school safety whose background includes formally working for the Minnesota School Safety Center through Homeland Security and Emergency management as its safe schools specialist and trainer. Our review has continued this year. We also work closely with the law enforcement agencies in the cities that our school district serves. These experts have helped us develop and implement policies and procedures that are based on research and effective practice.

Our partnerships with our local law enforcement agencies have been invaluable to us. We have school resource officers assigned to all of our secondary schools, who also help when needed at our elementary schools. Our safety manager meets regularly with our city public safety officers to maintain communication and a proactive response to potential safety threats. At a recent meeting with our local agencies, there was a commitment to provide an increased presence in our elementary schools. I appreciate the response to our needs for heightened security at our elementary schools and I hope that when you see a police car or an officer at our elementary schools this spring that you take stock that the law enforcement professional is part of our proactive procedures.

We also practice safety procedures on a regular basis for lock-downs, evacuations and inclement weather. All of our buildings have surveillance cameras. We lock all external doors during the school day except the main entry doors in order to restrict access to buildings. All of our secondary schools have "greeters" who sit at kiosks in the entryways and check visitors into the school. Most of our elementary schools have entryways that restrict access to the building by routing visitors into the main office area. A few of our elementary schools have a more open entryway that does not open into the front office area. In these buildings we have made the decision to hire "greeters" that will check visitors in as they enter.

The safety of our schools is and will continue to be our main priority. We will continue to strive for a welcoming environment for our kids while maintaining policies and procedures that ensure security. That balance is important for us all.

Jacobus is superintendent of South Washington County Schools.