Learning safety - How a Wisconsin school avoided a Littleton-style massacre
Learning safety - How a Wisconsin school avoided a Littleton-style massacre

Jul 1, 1999 12:00 PM
Carol Carey

Burlington, Wis., is a low-crime, middle-class town of less than 10,000 -"small town USA," as Gary Olson, director of buildings and grounds for the3,400-student Burlington Area School District, describes it. The somewhatrural area is fast becoming a bedroom community for Milwaukee, 30 milesaway, and the upper Chicago area.

Until recently, no one would suspect that teenagers in such a town couldplot cold-blooded murder. But incidents in small towns and suburbs such asPaducah, Ky., Springfield, Ore., and, most recently, Littleton, Colo., havechanged perceptions.

Changed perceptions lead to increased security, which is why Burlingtonschool officials were able to foil a plot by five students last November totake over the high school, shoot the police liaison officer, take his setof master keys, radio and gun, and take the principal and assistantprincipal hostage. The students planned to force their hostages to initiatea lockdown code requiring teachers to hold students in classrooms with thedoors locked until an all-clear was given by the main office.

During the lockdown, the students planned to gain access to records ofstudents on their "hit" list, then go through the building and shoot them,unlocking classroom doors with the master keys.

The plan was uncovered and perpetrators arrested on a Sunday. "Someonecalled the police and told them they had heard students plotting," saysOlson. "Police believed the kids had been serious. Had it not been for theinformant, we probably would have had an event like the one at ColumbineHigh School. When the Littleton murders occurred, we saw the reality ofwhat we avoided."

The importance of communication.About a year and a half before the plot was discovered, the district hadtaken definitive measures to increase security at its 10 schools, equippingmaintenance personnel, administrators and some teachers with some 70two-way Ritron and Kenwood 10-channel radios.

When the student plot was discovered, the radios helped tremendously inmanaging communications. While the five students were arrested on a Sunday,there was a good deal of edginess as school resumed Monday morning, saysOlson. Media attention was extensive and parental concerns high. "Theradios helped school officials communicate with police, each other, parentsand the media," says Olson.

Five of the 10 channels on the radios are used by the district, with twochannels used by the buildings and grounds department and two byadministrators. The fifth channel goes directly to the Burlington PoliceDepartment. Two Kenwood repeaters, one on top of the Burlington Water Towerand another on top of the high school, facilitate radio communicationbetween buildings as much as 16 miles apart by taking radio signals andrepeating them to the next radio. Specific channels are used forlonger-distance communication via the repeaters; others for direct,radio-to-radio communication, usually within a building.

"With the radios' scan feature, if you choose to monitor the radiocommunication, you can hear everything," says Olson.

The need for radio communication was born of utilitarian as well as safetyconsiderations. "The maintenance people would be out in the field: how dowe get a hold of them when we need to? How do they reach us when they needhelp with setting up a platform, preparing for a program or gettingsupplies? Now, we can't imagine how we ever functioned without the radios,"says Olson.

Similarly, a principal and assistant principal might be on opposite ends ofa school when they need to communicate. Now, the majority ofadministrators, teacher supervisors and teacher aides have radios, alongwith the business manager, Olson, and the superintendent.

Before the student plot was foiled, security problems and emergencies atthe schools consisted of traffic-related issues, accidents, student fights,or medical emergencies, says Olson.

The radios were part of a long-range plan for safety and security that alsoincluded access control systems. "Already, in 1995, there were some signsthat we had to look at security in the buildings," says Olson, who hasworked for the school district since 1981 and has held his present positionsince 1991. "I wanted to be proactive. At the time, the district wasworking on a crisis management plan to deal with different types ofdisasters, such as threats of violence and also weather emergencies."

Upgraded locks throughout.In addition to the radios, the district installed stand-alone accesscontrol systems and upgraded classroom locks. The V Series, by Best AccessSystems, Indianapolis, a battery-operated, stand-alone electronic accesscontrol system, was installed at two doors to the high school's radiostation and five doors to high school computer labs. The system includescard readers which can be programmed to control access.

A Best Access XV Series single unit, single-controller access controlsystem was also obtained for external doors in the old high school (now thenew 7th and 8th grade middle school) and the old middle school. Thissystem, unlike the V Series used on the inner doors, is hardwired ratherthan battery operated, but cannot be networked like the Best Accessnetworked B.A.S.I.S. system, which will eventually replace it.

In a public school district, issues of safety are closely tied to those ofsecurity. Olson realized that the overcrowded schools - in one case aschool built for 500 housing 800 pupils - could contribute to tensions. Theovercrowding issue has been addressed with an ambitious building program inwhich a new high school is being constructed and grades are beingreconfigured. The district also needed to comply with the Americans WithDisability Act; replacing door knobs with door handles fulfilled thisrequirement.

Students, administrators and parents hardly had time to come to terms withthe plot last November - the disposition of the students involved is stillpending - when the ante was upped yet again in early May.

At that time, concurrent with threats of violence at schools across thecountry following the Littleton massacre, a middle school student in thedistrict threatened that everyone would die. Again, the radios played a keyrole in the district's response, enabling administrators and police tocommunicate as the building was locked down while police searched forweapons and explosives. None were found.

But the next morning, 800 middle school students went through eighthand-held and one walk-through Garrett metal detectors, operated by ninepolice officers, as they began their school day. As a result of theincident, the district has purchased six Garrett hand-held Model 1165170metal detectors. The detectors have a continuous-on switch along with adesensitizing button that can be depressed in the presence ofnon-threatening metal objects.

"Right now," says Olson, "we're trying hard to sort through the explosionof threats nationwide, trying to use our gut instincts to know whichincidents are pranks and which to take seriously."

Prompted by their experience, plus the prevalent concern in schoolsnationwide, Burlington officials further upgraded their security programand procedures. In conjunction with installation of the radios and thestand-alone access control systems, they also installed special locks onclassroom doors which allow teachers to lock the doors from the inside,preventing an intruder from gaining access to the classroom. With thislock, teachers and students can at all times leave the classroom when theywish. The 9K Varsity Locks are manufactured by Best Access.

A closed-campus policy.And, this fall, when the new high school opens, "We'll be operating on aclosed-campus policy during school hours," notes Olson.

"In the new high school, opening in September, late students will have tobe buzzed in or come in through the intercom entrance. They will be able toget into the vestibule but will have to be buzzed in to gain entrance tothe building because the doors will be locked electronically," says Olson.

Plans are to lock and unlock doors at particular times of the day; forinstance, to keep the doors locked when school is in session but unlockthem as students are arriving and leaving.

The district plans to install Best Access's B.A.S.I.S. integrated accesscontrol system by September in three elementary schools, the new, 7-8middle school (formerly the old high school), and the new high school,which will consist of a main and a vo-tech/business building. The new highschool will have seven access points controlled by the B.A.S.I.S. system.

At the school district, the B.A.S.I.S. system, which stands for Best AccessSystems Integrated Solutions, will consist of video badging and accesscontrol features. Although the B.A.S.I.S. software program can accommodateintegrated CCTV as well, present plans call for a separate CCTV system.Philips Communications and Security Systems Inc. is providing the camerasystem and multiplexers.

Plans for the B.A.S.I.S. system call for a main file server to be installedin Olson's office, with two work stations in each building, one for themaintenance engineers and one for the office staff. "The maintenanceengineers will be able to supervise the alarm situation," says Olson. "Inaddition, on weekends, they are required to make sure the buildings aresecure, so they will be able to check for alarms or occurrences."

Wiring for the B.A.S.I.S. and camera systems will involve a combination ofthe district's existing LAN for networking within a building, and use of aWAN for building-to-building networking. Category 5 copper line will beused for data communications and copper coaxial cable for video. Fiberoptics will also be used.

The school board has authorized $250,000 to wire the district for a WANwith fiber optics. "We probably will have a main trunk of fiber with copperwire emanating from it. And, it appears we have some fiber that has alreadybeen run within the city and town that we might be able to lease," saysOlson.

The B.A.S.I.S. system, which is run on Windows NT and was developed incooperation with Lenel Systems, includes a controller capable of managingup to 32 card readers, with expansion capabilities. The system alsoincludes alarm monitoring and ID card production. Integration is achievedthrough a software program that includes both graphic and audio features.

The software program includes map configurations and allows for the inputof existing map data. "There are both voice and text alarm instruction.Voice annunciation (of alarm locations) assists in emergencies," says RodBarnett, general manager and factory representative for Best Access in thestate of Wisconsin.

Photo ID cards will be supplied to each employee with access informationencoded.

"We intend to monitor our entrance doors with cameras, and I will be ableto monitor camera activity in the building from my office, as well asprogram the B.A.S.I.S. control-lers," says Olson. Maintenance engineers andoffice personnel at work stations will similarly be able to monitor theirbuildings, but their programming capabilities will be limited by theirassigned level of security.

Brad Ruehle, electronic access technician for Best Access in Wisconsin,notes that, although the B.A.S.I.S. system is being phased in at the schooldistrict, one card will be used for all access control systems at theschools, whether stand-alone or networked.

Despite his enthusiasm for the security measures being put in place in theBurlington district, Olson sounds a somber note when he remarks, "The bestsystems in the world are not going to stop someone who's committed tohurting someone else, especially in a building with multiple points ofegress. You can't guarantee 100 percent safety. We've got to encouragepeople to talk to each other, to counselors, to identify someone who is inneed of help."

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