Report: Wrangell school district, Assembly members discuss campus security

    Wrangell, Alaska (Wrangell Sentinel) - School district staff, a school board member, borough assembly members and law enforcement met on June 28 in a work session to discuss school safety measures in the case of an intruder.

    According to the Wrangell Sentinel, ideas such as single points of entry on campuses, student identification cards, video surveillance, arming teachers and others were brainstormed as possible solutions to increase the security of each school.

    Nationwide so far in 2022, there have been 27 school shootings that resulted in 27 deaths and 56 injuries, according to Education Week, a publication that has been tracking school shootings since 2018. There have been 119 shootings in that time, with 34 last year, 10 in 2020 and 24 in both 2019 and 2018. The most recent at Robb Elementary in Uvalde, Texas, was the deadliest of those, with 19 students and two teachers killed by a lone gunman.

    None of those shootings occurred in Alaska.

    One of the issues discussed was campus accessibility at both elementary and middle school and high school sites. Josh Blatchley, head of maintenance at the school district, said changing the locks on doors throughout the district would run roughly $12,000 to $15,000. An alternate fix would be to leave interior locks alone and change exterior locks to a keycard system, costing about $7,000 per door. There are 16 exterior doors at the elementary and 18 exterior doors at the middle and schools.

    “I think the most workable solution to ‘harden’ the schools would be to focus on the entrances,” he said in an interview after the meeting. “Limiting the number of entrances used, ensuring that all other entry points are secured, monitoring entrances when necessary, and a new keycard entry system” would all be part of his ideal approach.

    Blatchley said he will research grant funding to pay for a new keycard entry system.

    “What is the greatest hazard? Is it that you’re trying to block entry? Are you trying to have a better response from the front?” asked Mayor Steve Prysunka. “What is your priority? Is there some way to do an assessment so you can come back and say our best bang for the buck security-wise in (one) school is perimeter doors?”

    Having updated video surveillance and locked doors during school hours was another option that was covered. Kids who are late to school would need to be buzzed in, possibly showing a student identification card.

    “You’re going to have to change behavior,” said Police Chief Tom Radke. “It’s really a change in culture for security. I get you want to come in this door, but you’re going to have to walk around to the main door. School started at 8 a.m., and from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. everybody has to come through the main door. It’s one way in, one way out.”

    Radke said Wrangell is in a unique position since it’s a small island community and the people know each other. “We don’t have that person who is going to drive 10 minutes and come in and do damage to a community they don’t know. That seems to be a common link too, some of these people don’t know the people they assault.”

    Assembly member Patti Gilbert said during her time as a teacher, staff benefitted from an in-service training provided by the police department that found all the strengths and flaws of classrooms.

    “Bar none, every teacher found that very useful,” Gilbert said. “Then we had a drill with the kids. I’m thinking (we coordinate) with law enforcement, fire, EMS, hospital, maybe do a community drill with the school system.”

    Radke said an officer could be made available for random visits to each school to have a law enforcement presence as a deterrent. “Times have changed. You’ve got to change with it. Part of it is hardening the target, part of it is education from day one. I’ll come in and talk to the kids. “

    Assembly member Jim DeBord asked about the opportunities for arming staff or having an armed guard.

    “Schools are seen as a gun-free zone,” Schools Superintendent Bill Burr said. State law prohibits guns in public schools, except with permission of the superintendent. The law applies to school buildings, parking lots and school buses. Radke confirmed that Alaska is one of the states that allows staff to be armed in schools.

    Mental health was also discussed to see what’s being done to help those who suffer from mental illness from a law enforcement perspective.

    “We go out and talk to people, it’s not just a phone call. I think that goes a long way,” Radke said.

    Assembly member Anne Morrison asked what responsibility falls to teachers in the case of an intruder. Burr responded that a teacher’s only responsibility is the safety of the children. He also said that planning is key.

    “Planning is really the biggest aspect,” Burr said. “Even in a crisis plan, we’re not supposed to put all of our material in (the plan) because it’s a step-by-step map of what we’re going to do next. Part of it is we have to be unexpected too.”

    Since the meeting was a work session, no action was taken, but Borough Manager Jeff Good said the borough and school district could partner to achieve specific goals moving forward.

    “We can work with the school on training opportunities that are available and what funding is available,” he said. “We can also help prioritize some of the hardening of the schools and break down that list and the costs and prioritize that.”

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