Safety upgrades planned for area schools

Work towards more secure entryways in Piatt County school structures will ramp up over the next two years, as Bement and Cerro Gordo will upgrade their main entrances.

Monticello High School will also gain a new entryway that will require visitors to enter the office before gaining access to other parts of the school.

The beefed up security at MHS is part of a $29.8 million ballot question approved by voters March 20. The work will be included in renovations planned at the 1923 building, scheduled to start in 2019 and be completed by the fall of 2020.

Final drawings are not in place, but “the idea is we’ll double the size of the office,” said Superintendent Vic Zimmerman. “You will be buzzed into the office, and then once you’re into the office, you need to be buzzed out of the office into the school.”

That is in line with other projects taking place around the county – using offices as one more line of defense before allowing visitors into its hallways. All schools in Piatt County already use buzz-in systems at their main entrances and a majority are also monitored by camera systems.

The office-first method is the setup used at Blue Ridge Intermediate and Junior High School in Mansfield, constructed in 2012. Last year, that district also enhanced its entryway at Schneider Elementary in Farmer City, which houses the district’s pre-school through third grade students.

“At Schneider, we redesigned the entry and office area to create a similar system (as Mansfield). It was part of the larger asbestos abatement, office remodel, and upgrades to cameras and other systems,” said Blue Ridge Superintendent Susan Wilson. The entire project cost about $800,000.

An effort to do the same at the high school in Farmer City was considered, but “it is much more complicated due to the locations of the spaces within that facility,” including an office that is more centrally located within the structure.

By this fall, the campus at Bement should also have secured entries for both its elementary and high schools, which are connected. The district borrowed $2.8 million to pay for building upgrades, with a portion of the funding being low interest bonds through the state’s Quality Zone Academy Bond (QZAB) loan program.

About $900,000 of the work will be to install secured entryways at both the east and west sides, including a through-the-office requirement.

“Right now we have a buzz-in system that has audio and video. The new system will have all that, but we’ll reconfigure the entrances so that everyone has to go through the office. It gives us that added security,” said Superintendent Sheila Greenwood, who also serves as the district elementary school principal.

In the case of the elementary building, the office will be extended by eight feet in order to expand the nurse’s office and add a restroom.

One of the biggest challenges with school security is the number of entrances/exits at local buildings – which can give people ways to bypass the main entrances if all are not locked at all times.

“The sad part about it is you can practice and practice and practice, and if someone wants in bad enough, they can,” said Greenwood, noting there are around 25 outside doors at the Bement campus.

In Cerro Gordo the number of entrances and exits will be reduced after completion of the $8 million upgrade that broke ground last Friday.

“Currently we have eight different entry points in the junior/senior high main building and junior high addition, of which four are used regularly. We have seven different entry points in the cafeteria/gym building, of which two are used regularly. When the project is complete, there will be one centralized entry in what will then be one building,” said Cerro Gordo Superintendent Brett Robinson.

The task will be accomplished with the construction of a connector addition, eliminating the need for students to travel outside from the high school to the separate gym/cafeteria structure.

Robinson said security was at the forefront when renovation plans were drawn up.

“Safety and security were and are significant factors in the building upgrade that is now beginning,” he said.

The work at Monticello High School will be the first in the district to employ the direct-to-office entry. There are currently no plans to renovate any of the other four buildings in a similar manner, but could be considered in the future, said Zimmerman.

DeLand-Weldon and Atwood-Hammond Grade School both feature buzz-in systems that bring visitors in close to the district offices, and district officials say there are no changes on the table at this point.

A school resource officer, which the United States Department of Justice defines as “sworn law enforcement officers responsible for safety and crime prevention in schools,” has been used at Blue Ridge in recent years, and was brought up recently as an idea for Monticello by city council member and former Monticello police chief John Miller.

“We have discussed additional presence in our schools with the Monticello Police Department. We also have a meeting set up with other Piatt County superintendents and the sheriff’s office to discuss the possibility of an SRO countywide as well as increased presence in our schools,” said Zimmerman.

“It needs to be noted the presence of an SRO is not the answer to eliminating the possibility of a tragic event at a school,” he added. “The major events that have occurred in schools across the country are in schools that already had SROs in place. The purpose of increased presence is to continue to foster a positive relationship between schools, students and officers.”

Zimmerman also feels “the best solution to these issues is continued discussion with our students that when they see something to say something and to foster an inclusive school environment for all students to be accepted and to find their own success,” noting that a “common thread” among school intruders “is a tendency to have lower self-esteem that has led to feelings of isolation leading to a feeling around a need to lash out at society, other students, and not just schools, but theatres, concerts, churches, malls and other places.”

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