School districts struggle to pay for security enhancements

ARLINGTON, Wash. – The violence in Florida has revived questions many students and parents ask in times of tragedy: How prepared are schools in our area for a worst-case-scenario and, is there a minimum safety standard required for every school district in our state?

School districts statewide are required by law to make emergency plans and practice drills with staff and students, but there is no state requirement for things like surveillance cameras or elaborate entryways. Plus, paying for expensive security upgrades is largely up to local districts.

A 2016 study by the Washington State Institute for Public Policy highlights the complex ways school districts in our state come up with ways to pay for security improvements.

“The people are the most important part of it,” said Brian Lewis with Arlington Public Schools.

Lewis’ district in Snohomish County regularly practices for a worst-case scenario. Not only is there a school resource officer, the district regularly has staff and students drill in case of emergencies.

“We also have physical features built into the buildings to make sure exterior locks are locked at all times,” said Lewis.

But voters recently and narrowly rejected a bond measure that could have replaced one school in Arlington and paid for enhanced security features at other buildings such as improved door locks, secured entryways and enhanced technology.

“A network of video surveillance cameras both inside and outside that would be connected, and we could share a link with first responders so they could see what was happening inside of a building before they arrived,” added Lewis.

Upgrades in physical security systems have been successful in other Puget Sound school districts.

In 2013, the Bethel School District in Pierce County spent close to $150,000 to equip most of its schools with new security cameras and secure entryways.

In Shoreline, the new Shorecrest High School, opened in 2014, was designed to be tall – 3 stories high; the idea is to have fewer doors making access to the building more difficult for outsiders.

Some Republicans in Olympia say arming school staff members could help keep kids safe.

“Everyone likes to call it the safe zone,” said House Republican Leader Dan Kristiansen. “It's the most unsafe place as a victim to be because the only people there with a gun are the perpetrators set on evil intent."

But there is no state standard for physical security protections inside our public schools – the state’s Office of Superintendent of Instruction does provide guidance to schools on some matters but says for the most part, physical security measures are likely best addressed at the local level.

“You’ve got western coastal districts -- their issues are very different than rural eastern districts,” says OSPI’s Nathan Olson.

District officials in Arlington say they will continue making sure students and staff are safe with the measures already in place.

Out of their entire budget, 87% goes to pay for staff. Lewis said it’s unlikely officials will opt to eliminate jobs to pay for new physical security features.

“School budgets are finite in nature,” says Lewis. “What we would have to do is cut staff in order to accrue the funds to make those changes.”

For school districts like Arlington, and others in Washington where levies or bond measures failed, officials will likely regroup with communities looking for ways to pay for physical security enhancements in school buildings.