Locking it down: District beefs up security

Clara Morse, Editor-in-Chief

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For the 2018-2019 academic school year, all students were required to obtain and wear official ID badges, for the first time in school history. Other measures taken to tighten up security include the planned hiring of a new security guard, the funnelling of all adult visitors through the building’s front doors, and the early-morning policy that students must remain in the library until 7:30 a.m. Security head Ray Ephraim said these policies were intended largely to facilitate identification of adult visitors on campus.

“We’re supposed to be a closed campus but anyone can access the campus, which is not good for us, because sometimes we’d have people in the building we didn’t know or recognize and we had to escort them out,” Ephraim said. “So now everyone having IDs, it helps to recognize whether you’re LBJ or LASA, a student on this campus.”

Ashley Gonzalez, police chief of the Austin Independent School District, said that the school shootings last spring brought more attention to school security across the district, although AISD had already been working to secure its campuses.

“The big thing is that we’ve had incidences where the mass shootings, with Sante Fe and everything else, it’s brought on more awareness,” Gonzalez said. “As a district and with the police department, we’ve been very proactive about safety.”

Principal Stacia Crescenzi said many of the new policies stemmed from preexisting concerns about the campus’ safety.

“Every couple of years the district does a security audit of your campus, and then they sit down and say, ‘Here are our concerns,’ and you say what works best for your campus,” Crescenzi said. “We absolutely want to have as safe of a campus as we possibly can while letting students feel like this is a welcoming and warm community, so it is a line you have to walk.”

One of the main changes this year was the planned hiring of a security guard to watch the back door to the dungeon by the student parking lot. The new security guard, who had not been hired yet at the time of writing, would be assigned to watch the back door and secure the second exit point.

Although the official district recommendation is that schools have only one entrance and exit point, the logistics of a 2,000-person high school have made that difficult to execute. However, Gonzalez said the district understood the logistics issues.

“I think we need to look at schools as a school by school or case to case basis,” Gonzalez said. “Depending on the population, we have a lot more students if we’re talking about elementary schools or a highschool, so we kind of look at those schools as scenarios, we consult with principals, no one knows the campuses better than the principals and the school resource officer assigned to those schools and we implement some procedures according to that.”

In addition, Ephraim said that it was important that students buy in to the new security changes, such as wearing their ID badges.

“The more we work together, the less stress there will be and the less the students will have animosity towards staff,” Ephraim said. “I think we have everything in place. We don’t want to have an overkill; I don’t want to have an overkill. Just building a rapport with the students, knowing who your students are, let[ting] them know who you are and so forth, and therefore possibly if something happens they feel comfortable coming to us.”

Although the school reshuffle involving LASA’s move has been delayed by a year, to 2021, safety is being evaluated at the school’s planned new location. For 2017 bond projects, and in the future, safety will be a primary concern when building and updating Austin schools, Gonzalez said.

“When it comes to even improvements in school buildings or building new schools, safety and security are our priorities when it comes to those design,” Gonzalez said. “We’re part of that team that puts together those plans that are eventually going to roll out and have a building that our kids are going to be using and our staff are going to be using.”

Ephraim said that at the new location, which currently houses Eastside Memorial High School, there would be more opportunities to ensure a secure campus.

“It’s like a very fresh new beginning,” Ephraim said. “We’re studying what we’re doing now, what we can do different or better when we get to that campus to make things more accessible to staff and parents and inaccessible to people who have no good intentions on what’s going on at the school.”

Understanding the character of LASA’s planned new neighborhood and the activity at different times will be a key factor in ensuring a secure location after the move, according to Ephraim.

“I’m excited about the less restrictions that we’ll have as far as the space will be and whatever decision we make, we’re not running it by anybody, it’s our decision,” Ephraim said. “I’m just excited to see the challenge of making it work and what we have to do. That begins with the neighborhood and so forth. There’s a study going on about what’s happening in [the]neighborhood every day of the week Monday through Sunday and so forth. We want to see what the flavor is in the morning, in the afternoon, at night time, during holidays, and so forth, so you know your area.”

In addition to physical security updates, the district is also planning to add more mental health officers and focus more on mental health at all school campuses, according to Gonzalez. However, there are more immediate things students can do if they want to help promote a safe environment, Crescenzi said.

“I think that the best safety measures are just being aware,” Crescenzi said. “If you do not recognize someone, say something. I think that just sort of having this general awareness and mentioning something when it feels off, there is nothing better that can be done. I think it is really important for students to buy in. It can be frustrating to students, but if we step back and look at the why, it makes sense and those little measures help keep everybody safe. If there is a thing that they believe we can do better by all means bring it to our attention.”