VHS beefs up school safety

VHS beefs up school safety
The students and staff at Vermillion High School will receive improved security starting this spring thanks to a $15,000 Homeland Security grant for monitoring front and back entrances.

The grant will cover a monitoring system costing about $12,000, with the remaining $3,000 for remodeling and other security upgrades at the building which has about 400 students.

The school board approved the plan Monday night after hearing of the grant and learning of recent incidents from the school resource officer, Sgt. Dallas Schnack of the Clay County Sheriff's Department.

"We had an ex-boyfriend who was roaming through the hallways looking for his ex-girlfriend," Schnack said. "He was screaming, looking for her, and she was hiding from him."

Other recent incidents were less violent but just as troubling, Schnack said.

"Two former students were in the building, wandering around. A teacher asked what they were doing, and they said they had permission," he said. "Another time, we had someone in the hallway, and we were fortunate that people realized he wasn't a student."

In a separate interview, Schnack said many of the wandering young visitors are the same age as VHS students. The visitors may be former students now attending another school, or they may have dropped out of school but stopped by to visit friends, he said.

In other cases, parents or other family members come to the school, looking for students, Schnack said. Other visitors include vendors or University of South Dakota students on assignment, he said.

With no monitors at the front door and its administrative offices deep in the back of the building, the high school presents security concerns unlike the district's other buildings, Schnack said.

"People have walked through the commons and past the gym, band room, choir room and office. They just keep walking," he said.

"If this was Frisbee golf, (the unmonitored area) would be a par 4. You could go 400 to 500 feet inside the building (before being detected)," he later added during an interview.

Under the new system, a visitor will open the front or back door and stand in the entryway. The visitor will buzz the system, and a person at one of three master stations will see the visitor's face in the "eye" of the camera. The school official can electronically unlock the door for the visitor, who proceeds to the office. Cameras will monitor traffic throughout the building.

If nobody responds to the visitor, the system can be pre-set to open the door, usually within 30 to 45 seconds, Schnack said.

As part of the security upgrade, Schnack will move his office from its current spot at the principal's office to the commons area, off the edge of the cafeteria near the front door. Schnack usually remains at the high school from about 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. each school day except Thursdays, when he visits other schools in the Vermillion and Wakonda districts.

Because some VHS students are allowed to come late to school, the high school doors will remain open during the first period, then remain locked until school dismisses at 3:15 p.m., Schnack said.

�Our (high school) doors are open from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. We are open throughout the day,� he said. �We look at the tapes, and we have kids who are here at 6:55 a.m. and stay in the cafeteria until classes start. That�s why I want to put my office down there.�

Because his office maintains confidential files, Schnack said he wants to use part of the grant money to make his office bulletproof and shatterproof.

School board member Mark Bottolfson questioned whether the high school doors need to remain locked throughout the day. He also questioned the inconvenience if visitors need to wait for access to the building.

High school principal Curt Cameron responded that a school official would be monitoring the security system nearly every moment of the school day. The new VHS system would be similar to security already found at most schools, with most Sioux City schools requiring students to use swipe cards for building access, the principal said.

�Few schools have unsupervised doorways,� Cameron said. �This (new system) wouldn�t be cumbersome.�

By incorporating a camera, the VHS system will give school officials a view of who is at the front door, Schnack said.

�If it was just an alarm and nothing else, you would have things like people from the alternative school come in, and after awhile, people would just ignore the alarm,� he said.

Vermillion is joining a nationwide movement for greater school security, Schnack said

�In October, the president had a school security (summit), and the National Sheriffs Association was asked to get on board with school security and get a connection with schools for a crisis plan,� Schnack said. �We already practice a lockdown each semester at the high school and middle school. I haven�t done that yet at Austin and Jolley (elementary schools) because I don�t feel comfortable with it at that age level.�

Schnack asked the public to put Vermillion�s new high school security system into perspective.

�This isn�t an armed officer with a metal detector at the door. We won�t escort visitors around the building,� he said. �We will still have cameras in the hallway and are well covered.�

The improved security will balance greater safety with minimal inconvenience, Schnack said.

�We want to stay community oriented and have people feel comfortable about the school,� he said.

The Clay County Sheriff�s Department has received Homeland Security grants in the past and will continue pursuing funds in the future, Schnack said. When funding is received, much of the resource will focus on young people�s safety, he said.

�The schools will stay a top priority for years to come,� he said.

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