The crowd jostled into the upper building at Pendleton High School to see the Thursday afternoon basketball game. School officials locked doors and blocked off hallways to keep spectators in the gym and adjoining foyer and out of the rest of the school where class was in session. The armed school resource officer hovered around the scene.
No one checked bags or purses. There were no metal detectors, no pat downs. Admittance was the price of a ticket purchased from a volunteer.
As schools consider how to prevent access to those looking to do harm, the amount and means of security has become a driving question. Some schools, including Pendleton High School, have used money from taxpayer-supported bonds to add fencing, cameras and buzz-in systems.
Mark Mulvihill is the superintendent of the InterMountain Education Service District serving schools in Umatilla, Morrow, Union and Baker counties. Schools are among the safest places for children, he said, and as common as school shootings seem, they remain rare.
“But when it does happen, the trauma is permanent,” he said. “An active shooter event is the worst trauma event.”
Preventing a tragedy
Oregon schools have had their share of that trauma. The 1998 shooting at Thurston High School, Springfield, left two dead and 23 wounded, and the 2015 shooting at Umpqua Community College, Roseburg, left 10 dead and nine injured.
That shooting sparked Mulvihill and Pendleton Police Chief Stuart Roberts to examine how local schools could become harder targets. Roberts toured schools and assessed them for safety, including the ESD buildings and early learning center in Hermiston. Mulvihill said Roberts spotted problems that school staff, teachers and students took for granted as part of their landscape.
Clear glass in windows lets anyone see in. Not all doors lock. And cubby holes near the main entrance are dangerous — anyone could stuff a bomb in one.
Roberts’ assessment forced districts to look at buildings and take practical steps toward more safety. The ESD, Mulvihill said, immediately put in tinted glass at its own offices, installed a door buzz-in system, placed surveillance cameras in better locations, and got rid of the cubbies. The audit, as Mulvihill put it, also spurred school districts to seek bonds that were not only about upgrading old buildings.
“It’s about, ‘I’ve got this 1920s building, and I’ve got to secure the perimeter,” he said.
Echo schools superintendent Raymon Smith said safety was one reason district voters passed an $8 million school bond in his district of less than 250 students.
Anyone could enter unseen at the school before, he said, but the new entry, which is under construction, has a double set of doors into the front office where visitors have to pass through two more security measures before entering the school itself. Other improvements include better door locks and an electronic and camera surveillance system to monitor doors and spaces in real time.
Smith said schools take precautions every day to ensure safety, but student behaviors also present safety threats.
“The biggest problem most schools have is kids prop open doors,” he said.
Students and staff at Pendleton High School call that “rocking the door.” Pendleton High School principal Dan Greenough took to the intercom the day after a 19-year-old gunman in Florida killed 17 students and teachers to tell students and staff to follow safety polices, and he specifically wanted students to stop propping open doors.
Smith said what schools are trying to do is no different than when we lock our homes at night and turn on security systems — both are about protecting others.
“The top priority is to educate kids in an environment where they feel safe and secure,” he said.
Larry Glaze is the ESD facilities director, and before that he was the La Grande schools superintendent, where voters approved a $36 million bond for multiple improvements at schools, including buzz-in and video systems at the front doors to allow staff to screen who gets in.
Surveillance systems that allow staff and police to view school video in real time are valuable tools, he said, compared to the Florida school, which provided video 20 minutes after the carnage. Such systems, however, are expensive.
“It’s the kind of stuff you generally do if you pass a bond,” Glaze said. “When we worked that into the bond [in La Grande], it was a selling point to the community.”
Local communities “are all over the map” on how secure they want their schools, he said, with the more rural schools even hesitant about locking side doors. But even small changes can make a school safer.
Numbering school doors and providing an up-to-date school map to police allows officers to coordinate actions inside a school, he said, and classroom doors locking from the inside rather than the outside means teachers don’t have to stand in the hall and be a target.
“Back in the day, people didn’t have to worry about this stuff,” Glaze said. “But now you do.”
Who to call
Glaze also said the best safety feature is prevention, which is what SafeOregon addresses.
SafeOregon is the Oregon State Police school safety tipline that started in 2017 in Eastern Oregon schools. Jodi Sherwood is the project manager. She said Oregon students can use a phone app, website or phone number to make anonymous reports about situations or circumstances that make them question safety.
So far, she said, more than 700 tips have come in.
“We’ve seen quite a few tips coming since the Florida incident,” she said, and the students using the tip line are interested in helping other people.
Bullying and harassment are No. 1, with 136 reports since the start and 55 of those from Sept. 1 to Nov. 30, according to the most recent results. The tipline in that span also received nine threats of assault and 10 threats of safety.
Oregon has about 1,250 schools, and Sherwood said 830 are using the tip tools and another 200 soon will be.
“We’re working on getting everyone signed up,” she said.
Eight other states run school safety tip lines. Sherwood said Oregon and those states discuss their programs and try to learn from each other to improve their systems.
Mulvihill said he knows if there is a shooter in Helix, for example, the state, counties and cities are committed to sending cops. Getting to that point meant 18 school districts had to adopt common terms. Police rushing from all over need to all know what a “lock out” means versus a “lock in,” and so on.
That gets put to its first big test April 13 in Boardman in an emergency scenario involving student actors, first responders and local school officials coming to observe. Mulvihill said the exercise will have to deal with social media and try to mimic real-life situations, such as demanding parents pushing police for information. School staff will get to practice re-uniting students with parents and guardians after the event.
“That’s where schools have really struggled,” he said.
This kind of drill may have to become an annual event, he said, but testing the system and finding its holes is the only way to get to the next level in school safety. If a shooting happens at a school, he said, the question comes back to what could we have done to prevent it?
Along that line, Mulvihill said he thinks schools should be much more like fortresses than when he was a Pendleton grade school principal, but he stops short of buzzing every single person through the front door.
School is a microcosm of the community itself, Mulvihill said, and understanding that leads to bigger questions than gun laws or arming teachers. We need to talk about what we are going to do to make our kids healthy, he said.
“Until we look holistically,” he said, “we will not find answers.”
Contact Phil Wright at firstname.lastname@example.org or 541-966-0833.