BPS makes safety recommendations to school board and community

New measures could include drills, intercom entrance systems, policies to ban guns on school property

By: Tiffany Esshaki | Birmingham - Bloomfield Eagle | Published February 19, 2013

BIRMINGHAM — It’s been two months since the tragic school shooting in Newtown, Conn., and district administrators have been using that time to develop a plan to ensure such an incident never happens in Birmingham Public Schools.

During its meeting Feb. 5, the Board of Education heard a presentation from Superintendent Daniel Nerad and Deputy Superintendent Paul DeAngelis on how the district can amp up school security. The recommendations were based on research conducted over the past few months in the latest technologies available for school protection, steps other districts are taking in the wake of the Newtown incident, and input from teachers, parents and students.

“I want to make it very clear that those incidents (in Newtown) have compelled us to look at our current practices,” said Nerad. “I accept responsibility for proposing to change the landscape of how our schools, from a public access point of view, are handled. But I do not and will not apologize for the need to have this conversation and to advance a revised safety plan for our district.”

Nerad and DeAngelis outlined a three-pronged plan that they referred to as “the next, most reasonable steps” the district can take to improve safety without going to extremes. The plan calls for focus on policies and guidelines, response systems, and character education and “pro-social skills.”

DeAngelis began with explaining the proposed changes to current administrative guidelines, 15 in all. Among the changes, and perhaps the most drastic, is the policy requiring schools to go into lockdown anytime a firearm is spotted on campus. The amendment is in reaction to Michigan’s law allowing citizens the right to openly carry guns on public property, such as libraries and schools.

“(Open carry) is causing school districts, as well as police, great concern,” he said. “With the cooperation of local police departments, we’ve directed administrators to put schools into lockdown anytime a gun is present, excluding law enforcement. We’ll make sure we get our students and staff in a safe place, or as safe as we can put them, and we’ll call 911.”

Schools will undergo audits every 60 days to examine the buildings’ perimeters, to ensure doors and locks work properly and to spot any “human behavior” errors that might result in doors being accidentally left unlocked. The schools will each conduct six lockdown drills each year, office staff will participate in special training sessions with police officers each August to review protocols and procedures, facilities and operations staff will be educated on lockdown and evacuation plans to ensure buildings can accommodate the plans smoothly, and a district-level crisis management team will participate in training sessions so the plan can stay constantly updated.

“They key points of emphasis are that the existing crisis plans are effective, but we’ll continue to review them,” said DeAngelis. “We’ve always received high praise about how well our buildings conduct these drills, but we recognize that more work is necessary.”

Birmingham Police Chief Don Studt and Beverly Hills Public Safety Detective Lee Davis both spoke to the board on the progress of the schools’ safety review, and both men said they were pleased.

“They do complain, but that’s their job. They’re teenagers,” said Davis about students’ reactions to security guards being inside school buildings. “But they know stuff’s got to change, and they appreciate that.”

Studt said he was in attendance for all of the lockdown drill that took place at the schools within the city of Birmingham, and he was impressed with how seriously the faculty took the practice drills and how well they executed them. He stressed that the BPD will be available to the district anytime the schools have questions or want to execute lockdown drills, and said the policy of locking buildings and monitoring who comes in is the best defense available at this time.

“I think clearly locking all the doors and allowing entrance only at one door, that’s generally accepted everywhere. Cameras — (acceptance) goes both ways. But in order to make a school building safe, you need to control who comes in,” he said.

Studt added that the lockdown policy when guns are spotted on school property is a good one, despite complaints from Second Amendment advocates.

“One of the things we talked about was the open carry situation,” he said. “But if the school board adopts a policy that says there’s no guns on school property, we can enforce that. We can clearly enforce that, and I think it’s a very important precursor. Guns and schools don’t belong together. I’m sorry, it just doesn’t.”

The board also heard details of new visitor notification systems, or VNS, which would be installed at the main entrances of each school. While other entrances remain locked throughout the day, visitors would be required to use the main entrance of each building and alert school personnel to their arrival through the VNS, which would include high-definition cameras and intercom systems. The systems, which are expected to exceed not more than $150,000 in costs, would replace the unarmed security guards currently manning the main entrances of the buildings.

Lastly, Nerad discussed with the board plans to review and tweak character education within the entire district to promote proper conflict resolution and other social skills.

“We believe that, while policies and response systems are important, they’re insufficient in and of themselves, and we have an opportunity to prevent,” said Nerad, explaining that the board will revisit bullying policies in the district and could possibly beef up staff in guidance counseling and social work departments to aid teachers in character education. 

Not everyone is thrilled with the precautions. BPS parent David Bloom addressed the board even before the presentation began, saying his daughter told him she felt as though she were in a “prison” and that the interim security guards at Seaholm High School were “creepy.”

“As far as I know, the school in Connecticut was locked from the outside, and the individual that committed the crime shot his way into the school and came in and then obviously killed a lot of students, which was horrible,” said Bloom. “You’re talking about turning the schools into a prison. I don’t think it’s the right environment to learn in.”

“I’m going to leave you with the last line of the ‘Star-Spangled Banner’: ‘The land of the free and the home of the brave,’” said Bloom. “Locking our students in schools is not being free and it’s not being brave.”

Nerad said the recommendation, while thoroughly researched, is still under review by administrators. During the next week, they will take public and board member input into consideration, and the board could consider taking action on the recommendation during its next regular meeting, Feb. 26.

To read the full Birmingham Public Schools Safety Report and recommendations, visit www.birmingham.k12.mi.us.