Editor’s note: This is part three of a five-part series on back-to-school health and safety
Few things worry parents more than the safety of their children.
It is something the school districts in southeast Iowa take exceptionally seriously. It is now hard to find a building without a sophisticated security system to monitor who is coming inside. Local school boards and superintendents have gone to great lengths to ensure that children are safe in the classroom, on the playground, on the athletic fields, and on the bus ride to school.
Fairfield Community School District Transportation Director Mark Branch and School Mechanic Kenny Sieren were hard at work Tuesday morning preparing the school’s fleet of buses for the first day of school on Friday, Aug. 23. Sieren said he sticks to a strict maintenance program and keeps a close eye on every part of a bus’s condition. He has to, because the state inspects the buses twice a year. The inspector reviews the wheels, brakes, windows, frames, engine, and every other part you can think of.
All of Fairfield’s buses are equipped with two cameras inside, and six even have them outside to catch vehicles that refuse to halt for the bus’s stop arm.
Those who have ridden to school in a bus during the past century know that seat belts are rare. The state of Iowa has not required buses to have them, perceiving that the seat in front of each child provided the necessary protection. That is changing. Branch said all new buses he purchases must come with a lap and shoulder seat belt. The buses will have three of them for each seat (elementary students sit three to a seat, middle and high school students sit two to a seat). The district’s special education bus already have seat belts.
Fairfield schools received a generous gift last year that allowed the district to make $46,000 in security upgrades. A group called “Parents Supporting School Safety” raised that money in the fall of 2018, and used it to purchase strobe lights in all classrooms at the high school and middle school; 10 walkie talkies staff can use when phone lines or cellular signals go down; and a one-button direct 911-dial to alert law enforcement of an emergency.
Washington School District Superintendent Willie Stone said doors are a critical piece of security infrastructure. Washington’s four school buildings are all locked down during the day and can only be entered through one main door. The buildings have cameras that allow a secretary to see the guests who wish to visit.
Stone talked about an incident last school year in which a student brought a gun to the high school and was later taken into custody. After the incident, the district released a statement saying “at no time was there a threat to the safety of students or staff members.”
Stone told The Union that the district relies on a “see something, say something” model for detecting threats within the building.
“We’re lucky that on that day, someone saw something and said something,” he said.
Physical safety isn’t the only area the district is concerned, they also have their eyes on cyber safety. The district is expanding its 1-to-1 computer rollout, lending a Chromebook laptop to every student in grades sixth through 12th. High school students have had their own laptops for a few years. Middle school students had their own, too, but could not take the computers home until this coming school year.
Those computers come with online content filters, and the students must attend a class on how to stay safe on the web, keeping track of their “cyber footprint.” High school principal Erik Buchholtz and librarian Joan Hippen lead that class. Local law enforcement officers also make presentations on what can happen to students who are not careful as they surf the web.
Mt. Pleasant Community School District
Mt. Pleasant Superintendent John Henriksen said his staff is well versed on safety procedures to follow in case of an emergency, which are outlined in binders in every classroom. All classrooms contain an emergency packet with a class list, a first-aid kit, bottled water and a few other items in case the students and teachers are stuck inside for a long time.
“We practice crisis drill walk-throughs twice a year so teachers and students have a better idea of what to do in an emergency,” Henriksen said. “We recently remodeled our Harlan Elementary School so the principal’s office has a much better line of sight to the entrance of the building.”
Security on school buses are also a priority for the Mt. Pleasant Community School District. “All new buses that we order will have safety cameras built into the bus system, both interior and exterior,” Henriksen said.
And like all school districts in Iowa, Mt. Pleasant’s buses are inspected twice a year, and are pulled out of service if a safety issue is discovered.
All the district’s buildings are equipped with automated external defibrillators, devices to revive a person in cardiac arrest. The district has a relationship with the Henry County Health Center, and relies on either a member of its medical staff or an athletic trainer to be present at every sporting event.
Highland Superintendent Ken Crawford spoke about how his district has approved an emergency operations plan. He said it was nice to have outside consultants who are experts in emergency preparedness give the district pointers.
“We are adding door signs to all exterior doors to help emergency crews go directly to the door that is most convenient for them,” he said. “We’ll need to contact our fire/EMT officials to do a walk-through of the buildings in the fall.”
Crawford said he likes getting help from the city and county, because it never hurts to have another set of eyes review the district’s procedures.
Crawford spoke about how even the summer is a busy time for the district’s transportation department, which is getting all its buses fine-tuned for the coming school year.
“Getting bus drivers is also extremely difficult due to the multiple steps/tests it takes to get a CDL license,” he said. “All schools are struggling to find bus drivers to do routes and drive for extracurricular activities.”
New London Schools Superintendent Chad Wahls talked about the security measures in place in his district. He said guests must push a button outside the building, and then a secretary unlocks the door to let them in. All guests must sign in at the office and wear a badge. That lets all the staff in the building know that the guest, who may be unfamiliar to them, has stopped at the front desk.
Security is just as strong inside the buildings as it is on the outside. Wahls said all doors in the elementary classrooms use a single push button to lock, which allows them to lock the door more quickly without having to use keys. The classrooms have windows next to the door and have a protective wire mesh in them. Wahls said those windows will be replaced with wood for greater security.
At the high school, the doors have a sleeve which can be slid over the handle like a door hanger and prevent it from opening.
“We have TV monitors inside and out,” Wahls said. “Last summer, we put a new phone/telecommunications intercom system in the district so we can send out a page from anywhere in the district and not just from the office.”
As far as looking after the health and safety of athletes during their matches, the district partners with Great River Medical Center in Burlington to use its trainers. A trainer attends every football, basketball and wrestling match. At football games, members of the local EMS are on the sidelines, as well as a certified chiropractor.
Winfield-Mt. Union School Superintendent Jeff Maeder said school safety is more than just buying the latest gadgets. It’s about taking care of the students’ physical and mental well-being.
“We have a caring staff who go out of their way to spend extra time being available to kids,” he said. “Our counseling and at-risk teachers both do a tremendous job being there for kids, as do our classroom teachers and associates.”
Maeder said a school social worker will come to the district two days a week, a new service the district is providing this year. He mentioned the district also will conduct more drills such as lockdowns and evacuations at part of its state- and board-approved emergency plan.
Winfield-Mt. Union has a certified athletic trainer present for all home varsity contests, and away football games. The school arranges to have an ambulance on hand at every home varsity football game, too.
Just like most other districts, all entrances to buildings are locked during the school day, and the doors are only opened after a secretary sees who wishes to enter on a security camera. Maeder said there are security cameras throughout the buildings, “monitored constantly by our office personnel.”
Mid-Prairie Superintendent Mark Schneider said all the buses in his district have five cameras on them, and that the video is saved for three to four days.
“If an incident or situation occurs, the transportation director and principals have access to the video,” he said. “All our bus drivers receive training throughout the year during monthly bus driver meetings. Trainings in the past have included reacting to emergency situations like fires, an intruder, inclement weather and bus accidents.”
The bus drivers must perform a safety check before driving their bus in the morning and afternoon. Upon the completion of their route, the driver inspects the entire bus to ensure no one is left on board.
“All our buses are equipped with radios,” Schneider said. “We employ a bus dispatcher in the morning and afternoon during the bus routes to enhance communication for unforeseen circumstances. The bus radios are also monitored through the entire school day by central office personnel, the transportation director, and the bus mechanic to guarantee communication with bus drivers doing mid-day preschool routes and field trips.”
Mid-Prairie employs two crossings guards to help students cross state highways, and an additional crossing guard at a busy intersection outside one of the elementary schools.
Schneider noted that the district has a licensed physical therapist present for athletic events. He said some athletes have suffered serious injuries during a competition, and for that reason the district contracted with a local physical therapy company to provide that service during all home games.
“He or she is there not only for the student-athletes, but can also attend to a member of the public if there is an emergency,” Schneider said. “We have multiple AED machines in each attendance center, one of which is located close to our gyms.”
Keota Superintendent Jim Henrich said he has made school safety a priority for the past two years.
“During my first year, doors were unlocked all day at the entrances to the buildings, but since then, we have added security cameras at all of the entrances,” he said. “The main entrances have a buzzer system for visitors to gain entrance, and the secretaries buzz them in.”
Henrich said there are cameras on the playground, bus pick-up area and in the parking lots. He said buses will be equipped with cameras soon, too.
School safety doesn’t end once the student goes home for the day. With students using technology more and more Washington Police Chief Jim Lester wants parents and teachers to have open communication with their students regarding their online activity.
Although Lester has only been the city’s police chief for the past three months, he has almost three decades of experience in law enforcement which includes 27 years as a deputy sheriff in Wright County. For the last 11 of those years, one of his roles was as an investigator on the Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force.
“Communication is the most important piece of internet safety with children,” Lester said. “Kids should share their username and password with their parents so their parents can see what they’re doing online.”
Lester said the crimes he investigated included the creation and sharing of child pornography, and catching perpetrators attempting to establish a sexual relationship with children.
“Predators groom kids for that. I don’t think any kid starts out thinking that’s what they want to do,” he said. “The predator could be someone who is pretending to be the same age as the kid. You never know who is at the other end of that smart phone.”
Lester has given classes to elementary, junior and senior high students on the potential pitfalls of social media and sharing information online.