Open-door policies fading at Piatt County school buildings

In Monticello, most high schoolers attend some of their classes at the adjacent Washington Elementary School.

Blue Ridge High School students also venture outdoors to use the cafeteria at Schneider Elementary School.

In Atwood-Hammond, there is a steady flow of students between the high school and the weight room and cafeteria complex, located in a different building on the campus.

Cerro Gordo’s cafeteria is a structure disconnected to the middle school/high school, as is the agriculture/art area.

Shared uses are common in local schools, and are a way to avoid costly construction projects.

But those shared uses are making it difficult to increase security in the wake of Connecticut’s Sandy Hook shootings in December. Buzzer systems are being considered for Piatt County school structures, but can make it cumbersome on staff who are continually unlocking/buzzing in students coming from other buildings.

“Frankly, it’s very inconvenient, but it’s what we have to do for now,” said Blue Ridge Superintendent Susan Wilson on locking building doors after students arrive. Blue Ridge already has buzzers at its four schools, a rarity in the county, but others will likely follow suit in upcoming months.

The biggest stumbling block in implementing safety upgrades is to come up with the least cumbersome way to increase security for students shuttling from one school to another. Proposals range from a locked fence connecting Monticello’s high school and Washington Elementary to having teachers unlock cafeteria/weight room building doors from the outside as needed in Atwood.

Atwood-Hammond Superintendent Kenny Schwengel met with consultants last week to “do a threat analysis. They can let us know where we have weaknesses.” Recommendations could come before the school board Feb. 20. He feels security upgrades will be easier to accomplish at the newer elementary school.

“At the high school, there are so many doors. We may have to replace some doors, maybe add some cameras,” said Schwengel.

Residents in Blue Ridge will be able to weigh in on the subject when strategic planning meetings are held at 6:30 p.m. March 6 and 7. Community members taking part will be able to work on one of six committees, with one concentrating on safety. Those wishing to take part in the strategic planning process should call Wilson at 309-928-9141 or email her at

Cerro Gordo may tap into its coordinated bell system to allow it to open outside doors during passing periods, then lock automatically when the bells ring again at the start of a class period. Superintendent Brett Robinson said security is a challenge when so many doors are being used to get students from one building to another. He estimated middle and high school students use 13 doors at three district buildings on an hourly basis.

“Every time the bell rings, we’ve got most of those doors being used,” he said.

Buzzer systems on the way
Buzzer systems have already been approved for three of Monticello’s five buildings, and are already under consideration in Bement and Cerro Gordo.

Monticello formally approved $30,000 in security upgrades on Jan. 16 that will include the buzzers with camera systems at the main entrances of three of its five buildings. Superintendent Vic Zimmerman said they should be in place by the end of the school year. The project will also include panic buttons that will allow personnel to automatically dial law enforcement if an emergency arises.

Bement’s school board is expected to approve buzzers at the main entrances to both the elementary and high schools in February. Superintendent Daniel Brue said they will also make entries controlled access points by installing an extra set of doors.

“There will be some construction,” said Brue, adding that district staff will be able to handle the construction portion this summer.

Locked up schools will also be a far cry from 2009, when Brue became the district’s superintendent.

“When I first came to Bement, every door was open at the facility, and there were a lot of them. Two years ago, we cut that to the main ones during the school day,” he commented.

And while most superintendents lament the elimination of long-standing open-door policies, they understand it is a necessity.

“We’ve probably kept it as long as we can, maybe longer than we could have,” said Zimmerman. “It’s hard to come up with a great reason to not have a buzzer system in a school right now.”

Wilson agrees.

“It is sad we are at this point in our society, but there are reasonable steps we can take to protect our children,” she said.

Controlled-access entryways are also netting consideration. Blue Ridge has such a setup at its junior high school in Mansfield, and construction of an elementary wing to that structure will include controlled access for Blue Ridge fourth through eighth graders.

Such security upgrades are also being considered for Blue Ridge’s other two structures in Farmer City.

Robinson said controlled access – which would limit access to school hallways even after they are buzzed in – could also be a possibility. Cerro Gordo Elementary School, built in 2002, already has a controlled access entryway

Superintendents are mindful of the need for increased security, but at the same time are trying to stay away from creating prison-like surroundings.

“We must prepare for these things, but can’t lose sight of the fact we want to make the environments not only safe, but make them a comfortable place for learning,” said Robinson. “It’s hard to find a balance.”


What districts are doing
Atwood-Hammond – District officials met with consultants last week to conduct a threat analysis and make recommendations. Shared uses include high school students traveling outside to go to lunch and the weight room.
Bement – Buzzer system could be considered at its Feb. 13 meeting. Shared uses includew students traveling outside from the junior high/high school complex to the industrial arts building.
Blue Ridge – Buzzers already in place, but more controlled access under consideration at Schneider Elementary and the high school. A construction project already underway at the junior high school in Mansfield will include a controlled access entryway for fourth-eighth grade students.
Cerro Gordo – A coordinated bell system at the junior high/high school may be used to automatically unlock and lock doors at other buildings students use, including the high school gym, art rooms and cafeteria.
Monticello – A total of $30,000 in security upgrades approved in January include buzzer systems for three of the five school buildings. As for the high school and Washington Elementary, which share some classrooms, a fence may be erected and a buzzer system installed on the outside of the fencing.




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