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Bemidji School Board addresses facilities safety issues

BEMIDJI – In the wake of the Newtown, Conn., school shooting tragedy, districts far and wide are reexamining their plans to prevent crises.

However, Bemidji School Board and staff members, administrators, teachers and students remain ever conscious of keeping the facilities both safe and welcoming.

“We don’t (just) talk about those things in the wake of a tragic event,” said School Board Chairman John Pugleasa.

“Safety is something we’re thinking about constantly,” said Superintendent James Hess. “We’re going to constantly upgrade our safety measures.”

School Board members and administrators reviewed the precautions already in place in the elementary, middle and high schools during a work session Monday evening. They also discussed whether they would be comfortable imposing further safety measures on the buildings and grounds.

Hess cited the primary lines of defense established at the various schools. He said clear view of people approaching buildings is of major importance.

“A building is about as safe as its perimeter is safe,” he said.

For example, he said staff members at Horace May and J.W. Smith elementary schools, as well as Bemidji High School, have good visibility. But the configuration of offices and secretaries’ desks at Lincoln, Northern, Solway, Central elementary schools and the Paul Bunyan Kindergarten Center impair visibility of anyone coming into the school. The same was the case for Bemidji Middle School, but the perimeter safety has been improved. Now, the double doors at the cafeteria and main entrances remain locked during school hours. The unlocked entrance opens into a passageway that leads visitors to the office.

“There’s a new office we built just for that purpose,” Hess said.

Vigilance is necessary, even if it requires some physical changes to buildings, he said.

The Middle School and Bemidji High School also feature video surveillance equipment.

Hess also discussed secondary safety measures some schools have installed. For example, a buzzer system would allow staff members to signal for help if a dangerous person were to approach. Other possibilities include extending the police liaison officer program to elementary schools, issuing portable or walk-through metal detectors and installing bullet-proof glass.

High School Principal Brian Stefanich and Assistant Principal Brent Colligan also explained to school board members some changes they have made. Visitors have always been required to wear badges and sign in when they enter the high school, but now they also have to show identification. Stefanich also said communication systems have also been improved.

He and Colligan also described prevention practices in relation to student mental health issues. Colligan said home room is where teachers and staff can note if a student seems disturbed.

“We’ve really established a culture of referring kids,” said Colligan.

They said students, too, are taught to report if someone makes a threat or seems distraught.

“We expect kids to talk about issues, and if something’s not right, we hope and pray they’ll tell us about it,” Hess said. “We thank them for sharing.”

He noted that in the case of the Columbine High School massacre, students knew shooters Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold were planning something. But no one brought up their concerns.

Hess emphasized that maintaining a safe environment is everyone’s business.

This article written by Molly Miron for the Pioneer.