FEELING WHOLE AGAIN: Questioning school safety measures

FEELING WHOLE AGAIN: Questioning school safety measures

Abbotsford school district reviewing protocols in wake of stabbing

Feeling Whole Again is a series on how an Abbotsford school and community work through issues of healing and security in the aftermath of fatal violence, ahead of a public meeting on Jan. 25. Click here for a list of the stories in the series.

Many people felt Abbotsford Senior secondary school would never be the same after the Nov. 1 attack.

And some questioned whether it should be.

Questions about school security arose, at a public forum and in online comments, with some wondering whether anything could have been done to prevent it: How could two teenage girls be so vulnerable in their own school?

How did the assailant get in?

Do schools need metal detectors, armed guards and video surveillance to keep kids safe?

These questions and more are being addressed in a district-led security review currently underway.

Schools are “safer than virtually anywhere else,” Abbotsford school district’s superintendent Kevin Godden told The News in November.

“However, I think when something like this occurs, it shakes your confidence in that notion,” he said.

Godden was not available for subsequent interviews for this series, and the district refused interview requests for Abbotsford Senior secondary principal Rob Comeau, teachers and other district officials.

The district will examine how staff are trained to respond to critical incidents, and evaluate the general safety and security protocols.

The physical design of schools will also be considered.

The provincial government will support the process and may take recommendations that arise to other districts in B.C., according to Education Minister Mike Bernier.

But while it is important to take a close look at school security, he said it is possible to go too far.

“This is not something that we want to take lightly, by any means, but we also don’t want to overreact and put systems in place that might not be warranted,” Bernier said.

“The last thing that you would want to see is us basically barricading our kids into a school system and putting them almost on the other spectrum of security. We need to make sure our schools are safe but we also have to make sure our students have a very inviting atmosphere.”

Theresa Campbell, president of Safer Schools Together, a Lower Mainland company that provides security training and consultation, agreed that while a full review is important, drastic changes are both unlikely and mostly unnecessary.

“Did [the stabbing] happen in a school because the school was a site of opportunity – because there was a lack of security?” she said. “That’s something we have to look at, but at this point in time, that doesn’t appear to be the case.”

Possibly the most significant change will involve the point where the attacker reportedly passed from the adjoining public library into the school’s rotunda area, where the stabbing took place.

Since the incident, a private security guard has sat at the library/school entryway with a queue divider – like those used to separate lines at sports arenas and banks.

The previously free-flowing foot traffic in both directions is not likely to come back, Campbell said, with a permanent barrier likely to be installed.

She said recommendations for similar changes to the roughly dozen other “learning centres” – public libraries adjoining schools – across the province may also occur in coming months.

What Saskatchewan changed after school shooting

Part of the district’s review may include consulting with other school districts, such as Saskatchewan’s Northern Lights School Division.

That was where two staff members were killed and others injured in January at La Loche Community School, after a gunman murdered two family members.

Following an immediate response involving counsellors from within and outside the school district, the division undertook a security review. Donna Johnson, assistant deputy minister of education in Saskatchewan, said it led to significant changes.

“We found that we were not using all of the current best practices in that school and that we needed to make changes to ensure that we were,” she said.

One such change was to allow teachers to use their in-class phones to make announcements on the public address system.

This effectively gave teachers authority to declare a lockdown procedure, something only people in the administrative office were able to do before.

Johnson said she was not able to speculate on whether having such a system in place a year ago would have altered the outcome of the shooting.

All lockdowns in Abbotsford schools are declared via schools’ administrative offices. The report issued after the security review also recommended an increase in security personnel on the school’s two local campuses.

Each now share a school resource officer from the RCMP who liaises with the administration and other staff to “ensure that things are safe, and stay safe,” Johnson said.

As well, security officers are stationed at both locations throughout school days. The unarmed officers greet kids at the entrance each morning.

“Whether it’s the teachers, or the students, just their presence provides a level of comfort,” Johnson said.

She did not have specific advice to her counterparts in Abbotsford and B.C., but did give general advice for a healing community.

“We’re all human, and these are difficult circumstances and the best way to get through them is to work with the people in the various systems who are there to offer help and to stay close with one’s family and just take care of oneself and those you love.”

What’s changed so far at Abby Sr.

Abbotsford’s school district, like all others in the province, sets its own security protocols to protect its students, staff and property.

That means the district decides which doors are locked, and where Closed Circuit TV (CCTV) cameras are placed and who gets to access schools.

Up until the stabbing at Abbotsford Senior, high schools had all doors unlocked during school hours.

Since then, all doors are now locked from the inside, except for the main entrance – which now serves as the only prescribed entry point for students.Such a protocol was already in place at all of Abbotsford’s elementary and middle schools.

Visitors are required to report to the administration office, according to district spokesperson Kayla Stuckart. New buildings are generally designed to have offices close to main entrances, she said.

The district has a total of 71 CCTV cameras on its school sites, including near the front entrance of Abby Senior.

“In all cases, [the cameras] have been installed as a way to monitor exterior vandalism,” she said.

An entry point between Abby Senior’s main building and the attached public library – where the stabbing suspect is believed to have entered the school – is now blocked, with a security guard posted.

That is the only place in the district where the public had unfettered access into a school, Stuckart added, although some elementary schools rent out spaces to daycares.

Unlike some B.C. districts, schools in Abbotsford do not have electronically controlled doors, where entry can be controlled by “buzzing in” an individual from inside.