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Editorial: Safety becomes essential criteria for educating our kids

One aspect of the November 2011 referendum that didn't receive a lot of attention was security. It got dutifully reported in the Journal, along with other building components related to the one referendum question that voters approved for $19-plus million.

But now, it would seem, after the deadly school shootings in Newtown, Conn., school security has become paramount. The River Falls referendum that voters passed before the mass shooting will improve security at all local public schools.

Those referendum dollars will add more sophisticated surveillance cameras for installation at the high school and the middle school.

Referendum dollars will also pay to redesign all school building entrances so that visitors are met at the office before gaining admittance.

This has already happened at Rocky Branch Elementary and the high school. Next summer the same will happen at Westside Elementary, Greenwood Elementary and Meyer Middle School.

Entrance remodeling will be most extensive at Westside, where the current office is down the hall to the right as you enter. Greenwood will also have a new building entrance on the north side that leads straight to the office.

Superintendent Tom Westerhaus said that until that remodeling is done, there will be paid greeters stationed at a desk for both schools. Greeters will approve and sign in all visitors at the door.

School security has long been on the agenda in River Falls. Recent mass shootings, including the one last week in Newtown, only serve to raise that awareness.

Last April the district and area law enforcement agencies held an emergency evacuation drill at the high school. The drill tested reactions of staff and students after two intruders burst into the building, one firing blank shots.

Westerhaus, who chairs a monthly meeting of the district's Crisis Response Team, said another emergency evacuation drill is planned for next fall, likely at the middle school.

At the River Falls Academy, which houses the Renaissance and Montessori programs, doors are locked when classes start. Daytime visitors are identified first, then buzzed in.

At the other schools, all outside doors, except at the entrances, are locked once the school day starts. Inside, Westerhaus said room doors are supposed to be closed and locked during classes. For an intruder alert, teachers and students are supposed to barricade those locked doors from the inside with tables and chairs.

While $185,000 from the referendum is earmarked for upgraded phone systems, Westerhaus said more might be budgeted for a district-wide phone system that adds greater emergency contact and intercom features.

Related to security is traffic safety. Referendum dollars have and will be spent again this summer to complete entrance and exit redesigns at the elementary schools to better separate buses and autos, and offer safer passage for students being dropped off.

Back to security: Westerhaus warns that the River Falls School District's latest security measures are not foolproof. For example, the 20-year-old Newtown shooter shattered a window to force his way into that locked grade school.

Westerhaus said that while such tragic shootings are a societal problem, school districts like River Falls must remain proactive to stay vigilant. His said even the best building designs and procedures can't completely stop all intruders, but can, at least, slow them down and minimize the threats they pose.

For Westerhaus, the safety issue is personal. In 2003, a shooting occurred at Ricori High School. A student there killed two classmates. Westerhaus was superintendent in that Minnesota school district until 2002.

He was later informed that emergency protocols he helped establish while still superintendent limited the number of casualties in that shooting.