District bolsters safety, but measures are not foolproof, Knost says

Enhanced security measures discussed by superintendent

By Kari Williams

The Mehlville School District has an increased police officer presence, doors that lock from the inside and buzzer systems on every school building, but Superintendent Eric Knost said the district’s preventative measures are not foolproof.

“Nothing I can say is going to sound like I think we have systems in place that are foolproof. They’re not …,” Knost said. “(But) we need to make sure we’re doing what we can, the best we can, while maintaining the atmosphere of the school.”

Knost addressed community questions and concerns last week about school safety and security at his second town-hall meeting of the school year. About 40 people attended the Feb. 7 meeting at Andre’s Banquet Center.

With such events as the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Conn., which left 20 children and six adults dead, Knost said Mehlville’s leadership would be “absolutely foolish” not to take a close look at the district’s procedures and practices.

“We have to balance that with the idea that I still have to run a school district,” he said, “and schools still have to look like schools, feel like schools and there’s a lot to say for kids being comfortable and there’s a happy medium that you have to find to make sure that kids and parents and staff members all kind of meet that magic level of being comfortable.”

When district resident Jamie Zelch asked if Mehlville will install security glass, Knost said he is not convinced that is “a prudent use of our money.”

“I can’t move windows around. I can move police officers around. I can allow police officers to patrol how they need to patrol to be effective …,” Knost said. “I can’t create a false security by spending a lot of money saying these windows … are now bullet proof or shatter proof or not able to bust out and go through.”

The Board of Education recently approved four additional police officers, at a total cost of $35,000, to monitor elementary schools and the John Cary Early Childhood Center for the remainder of the school year.

The additional officers patrol for four hours per day on an unpublished schedule. School Resource Officers, or SROs, monitor at high school and middle school buildings.

Resident Aaron Boutwell questioned the student-to-officer ratio.

“You have a resource officer at a school with 2,000 students, so it’s a 2,000-to-1 ratio. You have (a) elementary school that has 500 kids to an officer that’s only there part of the day, so it’s a 500-to-1 ratio for part of the day,” Boutwell said.

All of the officers are trained to handle the school environment in which they patrol, according to Knost.

“The training (police officers) receive regarding intruders in school buildings, even with 2,000 students, they’re extremely comfortable in that scenario,” he said, “and that’s because while it’s not publicized, there have been plenty of things that have changed since Columbine and every shooting after that. It’s assessed. It’s just not things that are publicly talked about for the right reasons …”

Additionally, buzzer systems are installed at every school in the district, with the most recent additions at Mehlville and Oakville Senior high schools. A person inside the building monitoring the buzzer system must push a button that releases a mechanism and allows the door to open from the outside.

Because there are small communities within the district, Knost said over the years of the buzzer systems being in place, “people start to recognize people and people start to get comfortable with buzzing people in.”

“I do think prior to Sandy Hook we got lax in our practices …,” he said. “So, that has changed significantly.”

No one is allowed entrance to district buildings until the person on the receiving end is “entirely comfortable” with the person requesting entrance, Knost said.

If there is any doubt, the person on the receiving end is required to get the principal or police officer on duty for assistance.

Knost said the district also is considering outside safety, but it is different at every school.

“The only examples I care to give are just our processes and protocols with kids going out, when they go out, when they come back where key people in the building are at during those times …,” Knost told the Call.

Bullying and school curriculum were also discussed at the town-hall meeting.

The superintendent began hosting the town-hall meetings in the fall of 2011.

The meetings have no set agenda and are driven by questions from district residents who attend.