By Cathy Taylor
Several concerned parents were in attendance at the Harrison Board of Education meeting this past Monday evening. Their chief concerns stemmed from the lack of security in the Harrison schools and they demanded to know what was being done to correct the situation.
As the meeting progressed, it became quite evident that the Harrison BOE had very little information at their disposal as to the state of security at their schools. While concerned parents continued to confront the Board with safety-related questions, the Board continued to struggle with the answers.
During the public comment portion of the meeting, Harrison resident Michelle Haskin approached the Board with her own personal experience at Larson Elementary School.
She began, “My concern tonight is over the safety in our schools. I incorrectly assumed that the doors to our schools are generally kept locked during school hours. After I entered my daughter’s elementary school, I wasn’t questioned at all as to why I was there. I entered freely and I continued in completely unnoticed until I made the choice to sign in at the office. As I thought about this, I became more concerned about it.”
Haskin continued, “I spoke with Superintendent House and I found out that I was wrong in assuming that there was some sort of safety policy in place to ensure that the doors to our schools were kept locked as a preliminary safety measure. I was told by Mr. House that the doors at our schools are not locked unless in the case of an incident management response.”
Ms. Haskin cited the recent Newtown, Connecticut tragedy as one source of her concern and questioned the Board as to what the Harrison school system was doing to keep kids safe while they are in school.
Board President Marie Roth stated, “We don’t have an actual board policy for safety. Each building is unique in itself, and I’m sure each building must have an individual policy that they conform to.”
As the Board continued to struggle with Ms. Haskin’s query, Superintendent House commented, “Our current practice is to have a single point of entry. We’ve asked our principals to revisit this and they are working on it with their staff.”
Board President Roth assured Ms. Haskin that it was certainly an issue that needs to be addressed, especially after everything that has happened in the past few years.
Roth asked Superintendent House if there were any parents on the existing safety committees. House responded by saying that the only committee they have ever had was one to set up various drills.
Frustrated by the lack of adequate response to her original question, Haskin made it clear to the Board that her chief concern was with the overall safety of our children in the schools and how security issues were currently being handled.
“I’m very concerned about people being able to enter the schools freely and without question,” she said. “I know there are signs everywhere that say visitors must report to the office. But good people already do that. It is people with ill intentions that will not do that.”
Board Trustee Roger Peterson added, “I know we have a Sheriff’s deputy that patrols the schools part of the time. But I was involved in a conversation just this past weekend and there was some concern that there are times when they have no idea where that officer is at.”
Superintendent House responded by saying, “That (officer) has a cell phone that we provide. In the event that he would be needed, he could easily be summoned by that phone.”
Peterson continued to question House, asking if anyone monitored the officer’s whereabouts at all times. House responded, “No. We don’t track him.”
Another concerned parent, Tony Brown, continued to pressure the Board to commit to solid answers concerning the safety of their children.
“There should already be a building emergency response team in place in these schools,” Brown began. “The Sheriff’s deputy cannot be available in all the places at one time. It’s a huge burden on one person. If we could employ outside private security, or at least volunteers, at the entrances, that would be a great start.”
“Harrison is not nearly where it should be as far as safety,” Brown continued. “People inside the school should have a solid plan in place before the need for a lock down occurs. It sounds to me like there is no communication at all.”
Brown also stated, “My own personal concern is not with a crazed gunman. Where things are going to go wrong in this community is with a disgruntled parent or with someone who has had visitation rights taken away from them, or someone who has been wronged by the Friend of the Court. That’s when we will see the playground abductions. That’s when you will see someone entering the school unannounced and grabbing a child. Our schools need to be prepared for this and have something in place to prevent this from happening.”
Superintendent House continued to cite the many, many meetings that he has attended in the past concerning these very issues. He stated, “At our last meeting, we did take notes of what we see as ongoing issues of concern.”
Board Trustee Peterson asked House how many of the surveillance cameras in the schools actually cover the entrances. House responded by saying that probably none of the cameras are positioned to see someone entering the school doors. They are all positioned to see activity in the hallways.
“That’s something we’ve asked our tech to investigate. We have asked him to get us a list of all the cameras we actually have, where they are used, and what they show.”
House continued, “Something that was discussed about two months ago was getting a video feed to be viewed across the street (at the Sheriff’s Department). But our legal counsel advised us there could be legal issues with this as far as the Freedom of Information Act. But I think these are issues that could be worked out and I’ve asked that this be placed on an upcoming agenda.”
House added, “At the high school, Mrs. Henry has two monitors on her desk and one of them splits into windows that display feed from the cameras in the hallway. But quite honestly, that’s only good if she happens to be at her desk, and if she’s actually looking at the monitor, and if she even knows who or what she’s seeing.”
After nearly twenty minutes, Board Secretary Therese Haley asked House directly, “Are you getting a committee together to handle safety issues?”
House replied by stating this will eventually happen. He said, “We have already asked the Sheriff and his deputy to become involved and we do have some protocols for taking it a step further. But right now, that’s where we’re at. We’re collecting prices, collecting what we have, and what we can do.”
As members of the audience shook their heads in dismay, someone remarked that the only thing they have heard so far is the word “eventually” repeated over and over again.
At this point, President Roth confronted House, “You’re going to be getting right on this, right?”
She continued by stating to the audience, “I guess ‘eventually’ is the wrong word to use. But there will be involvement by the Building and Grounds Committee, the principals and staff, the parents and the community, and we need to do it………soon.”