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Can schools juggle hardened security with welcoming culture?

Since the shooting massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, there have been calls for adding guns at U.S. schools. On the outskirts of San Antonio, Texas, one district has their own school police force, with more than 100 officers covering 117 schools. Special correspondent Lisa Stark of Education Week reports on how schools are grappling with security for worst-case scenarios.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    In the wake of the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that left 17 students and educators dead, there is a growing effort to make sure schools are better protected.

    Such shootings are actually rare. Statistically speaking, the chance a student will die at school from murder or suicide is nearly one in two million.

    But school officials know they have to plan for the worst, and are under increasing pressure to add physical security measures and armed staff.

    Correspondent Lisa Stark of our partner Education Week reports from San Antonio, Texas, for this week's segment on Making the Grade.

  • Lisa Stark:

    It's a typical day at Harlan High, on the outskirts of San Antonio, a bustling lunchroom, A.P. classes, sports teams working out.

    But just like every other day, security cameras, classroom doors that lock from inside, armed officers keeping watch, and a single open entrance into the sprawling building.

  • Shane Allard:

    We don't live in Mayberry anymore.

  • Lisa Stark:

    Officer Shane Allard oversees safety and security for the Northside Independent School District.

  • Shane Allard:

    We know that there's a more violent world out there, and we have to do what we can to ensure the safety of our staff and students.

  • Lisa Stark:

    Here at Northside, they even have their own police force, more than 100 armed officer covering 117 schools and 106,000 students.

    Is this office up and running 24/7?

  • Charles Carnes:

    Twenty-four/seven.

  • Lisa Stark:

    Chief Charles Carnes say dispatchers can monitor any of the district's 7,500 cameras. Two officers are assigned to every high school, one at each middle school, and roving officers make checks at elementary schools.

  • Charles Carnes:

    We want to present a hard target. That's why we expressed to our officers, you make foot patrols around your school. You park your patrol vehicle in a highly visible place and let people know that there are police here.

  • Lisa Stark:

    While most districts don't have a dedicated police force, 48 percent of schools do have sworn law enforcement officers on campus at least once a week, up from 36 percent a decade ago.

    Now, after the Parkland tragedy, calls for adding more armed officers. Civil rights groups worry that will hurt poorer black and Latino students especially, who are more likely to face arrest at school.

    In some districts, there's talk of adding metal detectors or even arming teachers, an idea touted by the president.

  • President Donald Trump:

    If you had a teacher with — who was adept at firearms, they could very well end the attack very quickly.

  • Lisa Stark:

    But a recent Gallup poll found 73 percent of teachers are opposed to carrying guns.

    Travis Weissler teaches history at Harlan High.

  • Travis Weissler:

    Personally, I am a gun owner, but I just feel like that there's too many what-if scenarios that could happen if you add teachers having weapons in the classroom. The amount of training that a police officer gets in how to respond to a situation is above and beyond what a teacher could learn.

  • Lisa Stark:

    Northside Superintendent Brian Woods says any new security measures must be carefully thought out.

  • Brian Woods:

    There's always a reaction after a really scary incident like Parkland for the pendulum to swing towards a much more hardened building, and that is completely understandable.

    But I think we have always got to balance that with, what's the core mission of this space, and what can we do that's reasonable and yet keeps the school not a prison?

  • Lisa Stark:

    Chief Carnes agrees.

  • Charles Carnes:

    In a free America, you know, do we put serpentine wire around our schools? Do we put bars on our windows? Do we put soldiers out front on the front doorstep and question everybody that approaches? No, we don't do that.

  • Lisa Stark:

    Michele Gay learned firsthand how school security can fail. She lost her daughter Josephine at Sandy Hook Elementary.

  • Michele Gay:

    She still, to this day, is the light of our lives and the center of our family.

  • Lisa Stark:

    After Sandy Hook, Gay co-founded Safe and Sound Schools. Its purpose?

  • Michele Gay:

    Making sure that we have reasonable precautions, that we have layers of security in place.

  • Lisa Stark:

    Gay bristles at the term hardening schools, saying schools can be welcoming and still use commonsense measures to help protect students.

  • Michele Gay:

    Is there a gate there? Is there a camera that will alert the office staff that someone is now coming onto the campus?

  • Lisa Stark:

    And at the school entrance:

  • Michele Gay:

    It needs to be locked. It's not open. It's not open to the public. It has to be a system whereby you are granted access.

  • Lisa Stark:

    That's what they're doing at Northside's elementary schools.

    At Villarreal Elementary, everyone is screened, every parent, every visitor, asked the reason for their visit, kept in a secure lobby while I.D.s are checked, a photo badge issued. Then staffers must unlock the doors to the school hallways.

    Nationwide, 94 percent of schools now report they control access during the school day.

    Does it make the school less welcoming at all, do you think?

  • Roxanne Gutierrez:

    No, I think parents are open to it. They have seen that times have changed, unfortunately, and they do see we're putting children's safety first.

  • Lisa Stark:

    And principal Roxanne Gutierrez says there's another new layer of security here, the lobby itself, renovated to withstand bullets.

  • Roxanne Gutierrez:

    Before this, we still had this entrance, but it was made out of glass.

  • Lisa Stark:

    So it wasn't bullet-resistant?

  • Roxanne Gutierrez:

    No, it wasn't.

  • Lisa Stark:

    And this glass is bullet-resistant?

  • Roxanne Gutierrez:

    Yes, it is.

  • Lisa Stark:

    The idea? To try to prevent another Sandy Hook, where the gunman shot his way into the locked school. Northside has spent nearly $4 million for bullet-resistant lobbies at about half its 78 elementary schools. It's asking voters in May to OK money for the other half.

    Meantime, other security measures are required. The district conducts lockdown drills, as do 95 percent of schools nationwide. Here, securing the classroom takes seconds.

  • Roxanne Gutierrez:

    The all-call is made for lockdown. This window is covered. The teacher does come over here and remove this. And then the door is locked. And if someone is on the outside, they are not able to gain entry.

  • Lisa Stark:

    Adding modern security measures to schools can be costly, by one estimate, a minimum of $10 billion nationwide.

    Security experts will tell you that technology only goes so far, that what schools really need to do is create a climate where students feel welcome and respected, and willing to flag anything that seems threatening.

    Harlan high principal Robert Harris says, that's key.

  • Robert Harris:

    I think creating that culture where it's OK to communicate to adults, create a culture where it's OK to call the safe line is something that we try to do from day one.

  • Lisa Stark:

    The Northside District has a 24-hour tip line, but it's only as good as the follow-up.

    How do you determine if something is really a threat or not a threat?

  • Robert Harris:

    It's always real. If it's a threat, it's taken seriously. It's taken as if it's real.

  • Lisa Stark:

    After Parkland, schools around the country faced a flood of shooting threats. Harlan ROTC student Kendall Duepner says her school was targeted.

  • Kendall Duepner:

    There was a fake Instagram page made, and it said that they were going to shoot up the school. Kids came across this, and they were reporting it to the safe line and e-mailing the principal.

  • Lisa Stark:

    The district and school police scrambled to investigate.

    Junior James Williams picks up the story.

  • James Williams:

    Turns out that it wasn't true. It was false. They did announce it to every family, that it wasn't credible, and that it's OK to come to school.

  • Lisa Stark:

    Despite that, some 40 percent of Harlan students stayed home.

    Did you come to school that day?

  • James Williams:

    I didn't come to school that day.

  • Lisa Stark:

    You didn't. Why not?

  • James Williams:

    Because I feel like, fake or not, you never know what's going to happen. Like, any past shootings, I'm pretty sure they didn't go to school thinking, oh, I might lose my life today, because you never truly know when someone's joking, when someone is serious.

    So, any chance like that, you want to make sure you're in the safest position possible.

  • Lisa Stark:

    The uncomfortable fact is that schools and students can never be 100 percent safe, but districts say they're always looking for ways to surround students with security.

    For Education Week and the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Lisa Stark in San Antonio, Texas.

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