Like others across the nation, schools around Summit County are reexamining safety policies, a domino effect following the Sandy Hook shooting in December. From knowing whether a door is locked to performing lockdown drills with students, the Park City School, North Summit School and South Summit School districts are all looking for ways to improve.
In a joint effort between the Summit County Sheriff Department and the Park City Police Department, which volunteered an officer to help with the exercise, undercover police officers visited schools last week to see if and how fast staff would stop a stranger entering a school building through the main door. All six schools in North and South Summit were part of the exercise and four Park City schools were included: Jeremy Ranch Elementary School, Trailside Elementary School, Parley's Park Elementary School and Ecker Hill Middle School.
"This operation was done in cooperation with the superintendents and principals," said Sgt. Ed Wilde of the Summit County Sheriff's Department. "Undercover detectives were sent to check perimeter doors, walk through the main doors and see how long it was until they were acknowledged by staff. We got some eye-opening results, some areas to work on. It was a great exercise for the schools and for us."
"Ever since Sandy Hook, there is more of a need to review security plans," he added. "We've been helping, giving suggestions. There is a strong sense of cooperation between the agencies involved, and overall, I am impressed with the school districts."
Though Wilde was unwilling to share specific information on how each school performed, the results officers recorded varied widely, with the shortest time at two minutes. The two-minute time was from a South Summit school. The longest time it took a school to recognize a stranger was 39 minutes and was from the Park City School District.
The Park City School District will be going through extra rounds of scrutiny with its safety plan, with Superintendent Tom VanGorder asking every school to provide a comprehensive plan to Homeland Security officers for a review process. At the end of the month, the school district will have a school-by-school report on the current safety plans and the effectiveness.
"They will provide some input, some feedback on how to improve, better evacuation plans" said Park City High School Principal Bob O'Connor. "A lot of the thinking has changed, so we need that input."
At the Park City High School, doors automatically lock using computerized timers so that all visitors are forced to use one of the two main entrances, an addition made to the building in 2002 following other schools in the district. Like many others across the county, the school is also equipped with more than 160 surveillance cameras throughout the building.
"We're bringing in these experts who have studied tragedies throughout this country to relook at our plans," O'Connor said, "like exiting out the front door during an evacuation. That might not be the smartest strategy anymore.
"The intent is to look at events that have taken place and where safety plans have failed before. Another piece that is not part of the drill but I intend to ask for is the response time for law enforcement to get here if there was an emergency."
In the North Summit School District, upgrades are already underway in the older buildings such as the high school. All the locks will be replaced with new ones that allow teachers to lock rooms from the inside, rather than the current door locks which can only be used from the outside. Small changes such window blocks have already been added, a simple magnetic blackout preventing people from using door windows to see into classrooms.
"We did a drill the other day, just to see where holes might be," said North Summit High School Principal Russ Hendry. " Sandy Hook was such an anomaly. Even though they were doing everything right, he still blasted his way in. How do you prepare for that?"
"We're not a jail, but we are looking for a balance between education and safety," he added. "Everyone is stopping to think about the plan, what is in place and what we can do."
South Summit School District Superintendent Barry Walker said his district has been implementing more stringent safety plans over the past two years, well before the shooting at the end of last year. The district has invested in automatically locking doors, electronic keycard access and surveillance cameras.
"We've been really active in the last two years," Walker said.
"We have already cleared with the school board plans to upgrade how our main entrances to building are utilized for years to come," he added about future district plans. "With additional construction to entrances, we will be able to control how parents come in and out of the school during the day. Right now, the main entry comes near the administrative offices. In the future, we plan on having a system where visitors will not be allowed in unless reviewed and checked in at the office, where we are buzzing in each person."