Dec. 21 arrived and departed without incident at Sedalia public schools, but the wake caused by false rumors of a violent plot and the Dec. 14 massacre at a Connecticut elementary school will have a lasting impact on security across the district.
Nearly two weeks ago, district administrators began investigating rumors spreading throughout Smith-Cotton High and Smith-Cotton Junior High schools of a planned attack on students and teachers pegged to Dec. 21, which some people believed would be the last day of the world based on the Mayan calendar. Pettis County Sheriff’s Deputy and School Resource Officer John Cline, Assistant Superintendent Brad Pollitt and other district and law enforcement officials dug into an investigation of the rumors, but Sedalia was not alone.
“Thousands of schools are dealing with this across the nation, but we’re the main one we’re concerned with and we care about our kids and we do everything we can to keep them safe,” Pollitt said Thursday.
After questioning students and determining the Dec. 21 rumors were a hoax, news of the Connecticut school shooting reinvigorated the climate of fear. Additional deputies were posted at the junior high and high school, and “buzz-in” lock systems were installed on entry doors at district
elementaries, the preschool cooperative and the middle school. Also, entrance to the junior high and high school was limited to the main entrance of each building to allow county deputies and school administrators to monitor traffic.
While the district paid for additional deputies at the junior high and high school, the Sedalia Police Department offered to have officers visit the other district schools each hour to walk the halls and instill a greater sense of security among students and staff.
Cline said the hourly visits were “very, very taxing on the police department. They have really stepped up to help out with this, but their calls for service haven’t gone away. ... That’s just not a long-term solution.”
Sedalia Police Chief John DeGonia said his department was glad to help out through the past week. When officers scheduled to visit schools were busy on calls, he and other command staff members would step in to perform the visits.
“Honestly, we got more out of it than the school did,” DeGonia said. “We usually deal with the negative, but the teachers and kids were so happy to see us, it was a really positive experience for us. ... It was a rejuvenation to see that people do appreciate us, they do value our services.”
But going forward, that level of frequency is not sustainable.
“We can’t do that, but we will do random patrols with commanders and officers,” DeGonia said. “It can’t be every hour, but still we’ll be there several times per day.”
Pollitt has received one bid and is seeking at least one more for installation of video cameras to accompany “buzz-in” door lock systems at the district’s five elementary schools, the preschool co-op, the middle school and Whittier High School. Pollitt said the cameras will show a visitor from head to toe on a signal beamed to a 22-inch monitor in the school office; the visitor will have to activate a buzzer to the office, and identify himself and the reason for the visit. Someone in the office will be able to unlock the door, which will lock again when the door closes.
“Deputy Cline says training will be needed for those who watch the monitors, and they can call their administrator to help them make decisions” on whether to allow the visitor entry, Pollitt said. And that video feed will be collected and stored for two weeks, should law enforcement or district officials need it for review or evidence.
At the junior high, the interior doors inside the main entrance have been reinstalled, and once school starts they are locked. Anyone entering the building other than between classes must enter through the office
“If a student comes in late, or a parent comes in, they shouldn’t be able to go directly into the building,” Pollitt said.
Also, the east door that leads to the FEMA building, which houses the junior high’s cafeteria, can be used to exit the building but re-entry must be made through the main entrance.
Similarly, at the high school, entry through the gymnasium is no longer permitted; all students must pass through the main entrance.
“We are not going to change that, it’s going to stay that way” after students return to class in January, Pollitt said.
Cline sees the changes as positive, appropriate steps.
“I’m glad to see it is much harder to walk onto most of our campuses without being stopped by someone,” he said. “If we have people who are unknown or unidentified on our premises, we have to find out who they are, and what their purpose is there, and whether or not they are legitimate. We have a duty to protect our kids.”
Over the summer, the junior high will get a $100,000 security system upgrade, including new cameras and a control center monitoring system. Last summer, stairwell cameras were added at the high school.
Building administrators “are going to be more prevalent around at the beginning of the school day — we are not going to back off on that,” Pollitt said. “We’ve asked our staff to be much more vigilant. If they see an adult in a building, (they should) ask, ‘Can I help you?’ and if they don’t feel comfortable with that, they should ask their building administrator to do that.”
Cline said students’ reactions to the increased law enforcement presence over the past week “has been pretty positive. ... They like that we’re here, they feel safer that we’re here.
“The biggest thing that makes a kid feel safe at school is seeing adults out there during passing periods, seeing and being seen,” he added.
Pollitt said the option of hiring additional school resource officers is “open for discussion,” but that and introducing metal detectors both come with significant costs. Cline said that will be part of a dialogue that will determine “as a community, what do we need to do, what do we feel is best?”
“I’ll quote my dad, who is retired from the Department of Corrections as a deputy warden of 25 years. ... ‘Good security is never cheap nor is it convenient.’ We’re going have to face up to the costs that are involved, and we’re going to have to face up to the fact that things are not going to be as they were before. There are going to be some things that are going to inconvenience us, and we’re going to have to make an adjustment to it,” Cline said.
“We have to find that proper balance, and that is going to be months in the making.”