MILTON-FREEWATER — The community here is set to lose some of the comfort people feel about their public schools, and there is no way around it, officials say.
Changing how Milton-Freewater Unified School District campuses look and operate is necessary to increase student safety, Superintendent Rob Clark advised an audience of about 50 people Monday evening.
That’s going to mean more restrictions and less convenience than students, staff and residents have experienced in this little town.
Walls are scheduled to go up, parking places will change and office staff will assume more gatekeeper duties — all worth it, Clark said, if it means school violence can be kept at bay.
“This is as important a conversation as I’ll ever have with you,” he told those seated in McLoughlin High School’s auditorium at what was billed as a “community conversation.”
While the Parkland, Fla., school shooting is fresh in everyone’s mind, Clark and his staff have been looking at the district’s security concerns for some time. Part of the $31.5 million school bond package approved by voters in 2016 includes funding for safety measures, Clark pointed out.
“Our challenge is to make all the schools in this district as safe as we can,” he said. “I have no greater duty than making sure your child is safe getting to school, in school and getting on the bus to go home.”
One step already taken was initiating active-shooter drills; Central Middle School was the site of the district’s trial run last week.
The event helped work out some bugs, and officials are looking at what comes next to prepare schools for the worst, Clark said.
The Milton-Freewater school district currently has five schools in use; that number drops to four in the fall when Grove and Ferndale elementary schools populations combine in the new Gib Olinger Elementary School.
Each current campus presents numerous safety challenges, said Aaron Duff, director of business and operations.
For example, most locations have more than one building to safeguard, and all have numerous entrances. Freewater Elementary, for instance, has 38 exterior doors. When Milton-Freewater schools were built, no one could have foreseen today’s security circumstances, Clark said.
Even now, perfect building designs don’t exist that will keep the bad guys totally out, but the idea is to put obstacles between them and those who belong in the school, Duff said.
“But you want to create barriers and time,” he said. “We want to make sure help has time to arrive.”
In Milton-Freewater, police officers can reach any school in town in about three minutes, said Police Chief Doug Boedigheimer, adding his department also responds to Ferndale Elementary outside city limits through an agreement with Umatilla County Sheriff’s Office.
His officers are trained for and expected to quickly head into a school for any threat, Boedigheimer pointed out.
“In studies of all school shootings, data shows that by waiting, there is mass carnage,” he said. “Statistically most school shootings last eight minutes. That’s what we are expected to do.”
The students getting killed around the country are innocent lives being taken by “unspeakable people” and his force will not hesitate to try and stop it, he added.
“I want all of you to hear me — that’s what we are trained to do,” Boedigheimer said to attendees Monday.
The Gib Olinger campus now being constructed already has physical protections in the blueprint. Retrofitting the district’s other schools will include the following:
Vestibules — every school will have a walled front entrance, and every visitor to the building can only gain access through it. These areas will allow for communication with office staff and, eventually, passage through to the rest of the school, in most cases. The waiting spots will be outfitted with comfortable furniture and “friendly” décor, Duff said. “We want parents to come in. Those areas will be an open, welcoming environment.” Plans also call for a phone system that sends a greeter to those using the schools’ doors designated for disability access.
Doors — a system will allow administrators to lock and unlock all school doors on a schedule or as needed. Areas like school gyms used by community groups will allow people to come in and leave on a timed basis. Interior doors will lock upon an electronic command. All doors will be able to be manually opened from the inside of the school.
Video — more cameras will be installed and used daily.
Identification — visitors to schools will need to present valid identification.
Drills — schools will continue to practice for emergencies, including lockdown procedures to see what needs changing and what holes need fixing.
Communications — new or upgraded systems will allow for audible and accurate alerts to classrooms and other parts of campuses.
Parking — high school students and staff will likely see new parking lot designations in the fall. By creating specific zones and using security cameras, administrators will be able to discern unusual parking lot traffic and activity.
Other security ideas are on the table to be considered in future phases, Clark said, including metal detectors and a backpack policy that returns students to using lockers rather than carrying backpacks throughout the day.
He and staff are also looking at shifting Mac-Hi’s campus policy from allowing upper students to leave for lunch by foot or car to foot only. Students may have to earn the privilege of leaving school grounds for lunch, for example.
There is no doubt in his mind that new or better-enforced security measures will feel tight when first tried on for size, Clark said.
“None of us signed up for this part of the job, but we signed up for the job,” he said. “And our No. 1 job is to keep your kids safe.”