Selected readings on US charter schools
As schools examine their safety plans in the wake of the Newtown shooting, many of the Valley’s charter and private schools are not as prepared to defend against internal and external threats as their traditional public-school counterparts, police and school officials say.
“My impression is they haven’t been receiving the same attention as (district) public schools,” said Tempe Police Chief Tom Ryff, who this month convened a meeting of teachers, principals and emergency responders in Tempe to discuss preparedness.
“So, the question is: Where do they go for the resources?” Ryff said.
School security has come under more scrutiny in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in Newtown, Conn., that killed 26 people in December.
Most of the more than 535 charter and private schools in Arizona have not established the same relationship with local police departments to train and prepare staffs for emergencies as traditional public district schools, nor have many private schools invited officers onto campus to become familiar with their floor plans.
Although law enforcement believes these to be wise practices, they are not required. Private schools are not subject to the same state regulations as traditional public schools. Under Arizona law, all public schools are required to complete an Emergency Response Plan. Charter schools are not required to do so, but many of them do, according to Molly Edwards, spokeswoman for the Arizona Department of Education.
Officials lament that not all are on board.
“We all need to be vigilant about safety risks and ensure that teachers are well-trained in threat assessment, violence prevention and emergency-response plans,” John Huppenthal, Arizona superintendent of public instruction, said in a statement.
“The (state Department of Education) offers training and technical assistance in planning for all schools. There is no statute requiring charter and private schools to have emergency-response plans, but we offer the service to all schools.”
Police concern about charter- and private-school security is heightened because some operate out of strip malls and do not have security guards or security cameras.
Others operate in stand-alone buildings that lack perimeter security fencing.
Still others are lax on sign-in procedures for visitors, police say.
Most district public schools have security fencing, security cameras, require visitors to sign in and provide identification and, in some cases, station security guards and sworn police officers on campus. Few private schools do all this.
The Arizona Charter Schools Association, in a move to shore up security, sent an e-mail to its members asking them to share their school-safety policies with other charters. About 45 of the 535 charter schools in Arizona have submitted policies, said Megan Gilbertson, spokeswoman for the association.
“Some of our schools have asked to view best-practice models for school-safety policies,” Gilbertson said. “As part of our support to our member schools, we have asked schools to voluntarily share their school-safety policies with other charters. We did this because we believe student safety is of paramount concern.”
Ryff, Tempe’s police chief, and his staff have offered to help charter and private schools in the city. He and others encouraged everyone to take an online safety-training course through the National Incident Management System.
“I want to make sure they take a very holistic approach to this,” Ryff said. “There are all types of situations that will trigger violent responses.”
The key, he said, is communication: alerting administration about an angry parent, student or staffer, and telling the school principal about a domestic-violence dispute.
Ryff’s invitation-only meeting in Tempe, planned before the Sandy Hook tragedy, drew about 125 educators, police and fire officials.
Several panelists, including former Tempe Mayor Hugh Hallman, now headmaster at Tempe Preparatory Academy, emphasized that “non-traditional schools need to get prepared” for emergencies.
“Tempe Prep is reasonably prepared for threats, but in a free and open society, for which I’m all in favor, there is no way to be totally protected,” Hallman said.
Among the potentially vulnerable is Sequoia Charter Schools in Mesa, which is “wide open” and needs a fence and security cameras around the perimeter, according to Superintendent Ron Neil.
Neil said the school is planning to build a fence but, as a charter-school operator, lacks the authority to sell bonds to fund improvements. Funding comes out of the operating budget.
Administrators of Sequoia, which also operates in Phoenix, have conducted parent-teacher meetings since the December massacre in Connecticut.
“The shootings have made people feel vulnerable,” Neil said. “It’s important for everyone to get together and voice their fears.”
Not everyone connected with a private school shares the belief that his or her school is a security risk, though. Parent Michael Ellenby said he worries more about his freshman daughter’s public district high school, Mountain Pointe, with about 2,600 students, because it is large, than he does about the Desert Garden Montessori school, with about 500 students, that she attends during the second part of the school day.
“Parents are so much more integrated in the Montessori school, but at the public schools, you’re eliminating the extra eyes and ears of parents,” Ellenby said.
A private company that guards many Valley parochial schools, including Notre Dame Preparatory in Scottsdale, also maintains that those schools are as secure as public schools.
“They’re just as secure, if not more,” said Diana Zellers, owner of Bolt Security Guard Services, which contracts with most of the high schools in the Phoenix Diocese, as well as some public districts.
Schools use security guards for a constant presence on campus as well as security technology, Zellers said, adding that she recently ordered iPads for guards to monitor the surveillance-video cameras while patrolling campuses.
“We take care of the school as if it was our home,” said Brad Zellers, Diana’s husband and owner of BSN Security, which installs and maintains camera and alarm services at homes and businesses and Notre Dame Prep.
The Zellerses are parents of a Notre Dame Prep student.
Diana said Notre Dame Prep has had tight security since it opened 10 years ago.
“Their security is very visible, and the security guard has an office with a nice view of the campus,” she said. “They do lockdown drills, and they work with the police.”
Charter-school teacher Jessica Navaro said she feels safe on her west Tempe MGRM Pinnacle charter campus, partly because “we use a lot of professional-development days to train and talk about what to do.”
Free resources are available but not always used, officials say.
Phoenix and Scottsdale police use school-resource officers and crime-prevention units on school-safety matters to make recommendations to all private entities, including schools, that request help, Scottsdale police Officer David Pubins said.
But not many private or public charter schools have asked for help, he said.
The Scottsdale force contacted about 60 private and charter schools at the end of last school year to offer its services, but Pubins is among the many in law enforcement who do not believe that those schools are prepared for an emergency.
Scottsdale police work with school-district security personnel to develop and implement security plans, Pubins said. The U.S. government requires public schools to conduct regular training, he added. Charter schools are public because they receive taxpayer money.
In the West Valley, the Goodyear Police Department conducts “active-shooter, rapid-deployment” training every year at public district schools but not at private schools or public charter schools.
“They train at different high schools each year so that they know the layout of a campus,” said Lisa Kutis, a Goodyear police spokeswoman.
The city’s student-resource officer program, funded by the Goodyear Police Department, staffs three full-time school-resource officers. Although the SROs are based at public high schools, they have an area of responsibility, based on geography, that includes any elementary, charter or parochial school within that area.
“If there is an issue there, they would respond. But that is only in response to a call,” Kutis said.
But there is no formal program with charter or parochial schools in Goodyear, Kutis said. They are encouraged to follow their district protocol and ask police for feedback, but officers don’t govern schools’ emergency protocols, according to Kutis.
In Mesa, police Sgt. Steve Berry said the department is eager to help all schools when it comes to security.
“We help them evaluate their campuses as far as lighting, gates, security and access,” Berry said. “We find out whether or not they have people check in and sign in (before entering classrooms).”
Berry said one charter school recently requested that police come to campus to evaluate safety plans. The police have been providing the same service for all 82 of the Mesa Public Schools.
Law-enforcement officials worry that private and charter schools often do not have the long-established relationship with police, who regularly practice “table-top” exercises to drill on how best to handle emergencies.
“Even if you have a policy plan in place and have checked off all the boxes … not everyone’s prepared,” Ryff said. “We have to do a gut check and be honest with yourself.
“And we have to share information with each other.”
Republic reporters Mary Beth Faller, Eddi Trevizo, Cathryn Creno and D.S. Woodfill contributed to this article.
Source: AZCentral.com – by Kerry Fehr-Snyder