By Natalie Orenstein
When nearby gunfire forced LeConte Elementary School to go on lockdown earlier this month, second-grade teacher Pamela Deibel and her colleagues weren’t able to lock their own classrooms, and students in bathrooms and hallways missed the announcement on the loudspeaker. But the next campus in the district to go on lockdown may not face the same challenges.
The Berkeley Unified School District will immediately begin to implement a nearly $2 million school safety improvement plan approved by the school board to install new PA systems, increase the use of surveillance cameras, conduct armed-intruder training for staff — and replace classroom locks so that the doors can be bolted from the inside.
“All of those improvements were ones we desired,” Deibel said. “I would’ve liked to be able to lock my door from inside.”
Prompted by the 2012 mass shooting that killed 20 children at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., the district last year hired two consultants, Edu-Safe Associates and Dimensions Unlimited, to visit all BUSD schools and assess their preparedness for violent intruders. The Board voted 2-1 to adopt some of the consultants’ recommendations Jan. 15.
The consultants identified several “obvious weaknesses” in campus safety, said Susan Craig, director of student services. Craig will oversee the staff training program in the spring.
Armed-intruder training, developed shortly after the Columbine High School shooting massacre in 1999, “is nationally accepted and recommended these days,” Craig said.
BUSD schools already hold lockdown drills to prepare for intruders. “Where the armed intruder training takes it to the next step is preparing for something you hope you never have to use, which is, God forbid, if the armed intruder breaks through the barricade and gets into the room,” Craig said. “It’s training for how to respond to that, how to save lives.”
Facility improvements recommended in the safety audit reports will begin immediately and will be complete by the end of summer 2015, said Director of Facilities Lew Jones.
Both consultants recommended the installation of comprehensive PA systems in all schools.
“Every principal at each site visited in BUSD advised that their public address, warning and campuswide communication systems were either nonexistent, not operating or deficient in some way. Administrators demonstrated that they could not cover the entire site with an emergency alert, a warning, or vital response information,” the Dimensions Unlimited report found.
The board also approved the increased use of surveillance cameras at the schools and the potential use of a live video feed during an incident, but the district will not move forward with the plan until the board develops a policy to address privacy concerns. Cameras were first installed in Berkeley schools with the caveat that the footage would be used only after an incident.
“If an armed intruder gets into Berkeley High School, it’s really an advantage to be able to broadcast to the entire community the exact location of an individual and what they’re doing,” Craig said. “We want to enhance our use of surveillance cameras but we want to make sure the privacy of students and staff is not invaded through continual monitoring.”
Although the use of a live feed is far from definite, some board members were adamant that there be guidelines in place that prevent its abuse, should schools begin to use the feature.
“I understand the value in the case of an emergency to monitor what’s happening, but we also want to have very clear guidelines for when we’re not going to use that,” said Judy Appel, the BUSD board’s vice president. “Of course, the safety of our students is a paramount concern to the board, and we just want to make sure we’re doing that in the best way that protects our students all around.”
The nearly $2 million in safety improvements is financed by $15,000 from the general fund, $100,000 in Measure H funds and $1,220,000 from bond measures AA and I. The installation of interior locks in classrooms could add $500,000.
At $15,000, the armed-intruder training is the least expensive piece of the plan.
The BUSD did not adopt all the recommendations made by the consultants, including a suggestion to station a police officer at each school. Currently, there is one police officer at Berkeley High but none on other campuses.
“It’s costly and we have safety officers that are Berkeley Unified staff,” Craig said. “They are not armed, they are not police officers, but they have a lot of training around de-escalating incidents. We needed to prioritize what we felt would leverage our dollars to maximize the recommendations.”
There have been 137 fatal school shootings since 1980, according to the Edu-Safe report.
There have been no reported gun-related incidents within Berkeley schools since there was a rash of them at Berkeley High School in 2011. One day in February two students brought firearms onto campus, and on March 11 a gun was fired in a bathroom. A bullet went through the wall of a portable classroom but nobody was injured.
BUSD schools are put on lockdown multiple times each year, often in response to violence in the surrounding area. The LeConte lockdown, prompted by gunfire during an attempted robbery in the neighborhood, was the first of 2014. Berkeley High School went on lockdown in 2013 during a Shattuck Avenue robbery attempt, and held a lockdown safety drill in 2012 shortly after the Newtown shooting.
“Just as in most school districts, the schools in Berkeley are microcosms of the communities in which they exist. All of the advantages and disadvantages of the community are reflected on the various school campuses,” the Edu-Safe report said.
KQED News Associate Berkeleyside is an independently owned news website based in Berkeley, Calif. Click here if you would you like to receive the latest Berkeley news in your inbox once a day for free with Berkeleyside’s Daily Briefing email.