The price of safety for Kansas City area schools: Millions. But does it work?

Kansas City area school districts are fighting back against the threat of mass shootings with security upgrades costing hundreds of millions of dollars.

Through bond issues, state grants, tax dollars and other sources, they are reconstructing school entrances to limit access. Some have added metal detectors. They are installing security cameras — some equipped with facial recognition software. They have purchased new door locks and communication systems and hired more school resource officers.

And yet many students and their parents still don’t feel safe.

“Every day I walk into school thinking this could be the last time I do,” said Gavin Hoedl, 17, a senior at Olathe South High School. “I never know what is going to happen. A kid you are sitting next to in class could have a gun in their bag and you wouldn’t know.”

In this climate, parents in Lawrence sprung into action on Tuesday when they heard a report of a student with a gun at a middle school. Some broke a window to pull children out of the building, and students had to be treated for injuries from the broken glass. Police found there was a “miscommunication” and there was no threat or gun.

Jennifer Patel, a Lenexa mother of three, understands that sort of fear.

“When my oldest son graduated from high school last May, one of my first thoughts was that I got a kid out of school without having a school shooting happen,” she said. “That seems to be a litmus test nowadays.”

To safeguard students and curb those underlying fears, both Missouri and Kansas this year are appropriating more money for districts to spend on school safety and implementing new safety standards.

Yet Missouri ranks last in the nation in the amount the state has spent this past year to help districts make schools safer, according to “The 74,” a nonprofit news website focusing on national education issues.

The most spent by a state: $400 million in Florida, where last year a 19-year-old gunman killed 17 people and injured 17 others at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

By contrast, Missouri spent $300,000, the report said. That went to grants for an education organization to establish safety programs, including training on how to respond to active shooters. State officials say they have done more. In March, for example, Missouri Gov. Mike Parson created a task force to develop a plan for school safety, identifying best practices for districts.

Kansas legislators approved offering districts $5 million in matching grants for security upgrades, including infrastructure, security technology, intrusion detection and communication systems to meet new state standards.

With relatively little money coming from their state capitals, most area districts are improving security through taxpayer dollars, grants and bond issues. Missouri voters, for example, approved $800 million in school bond issues in districts across the state, a big chunk going to safety.

The main goal is prevention, said Dan Carney, director of safety and security for the Blue Valley school district, which took advantage of new grant money from the state of Kansas to spend $840,000 on new door locks for classrooms. The district is planning a $186 million bond referendum in January for more such upgrades. But safety goes beyond the purchases, he said.

“There are vendors selling everything under the sun for school safety,” Carney said. “And you can buy a lot of things that would not have any effective return. So it goes back to what will truly make schools safe. And the best deterrent of violence in schools is trusted relationships with kids. If you ignore that and keep building barriers, build walls and razor wires, all of that is meaningless unless you have a positive culture in school.”

Dan Carney is director of safety and security for the Blue Valley school district. James Wooldridge jawooldridge@kcstar.com

Spending more

Danielle Nixon, spokeswoman for the Raytown school district, traces the rise in safety measures to every major school shooting.

Twenty years ago, Colorado’s deadly Columbine shooting had school officials across the country deciding it was time to “have a plan in place,” she said.

After the mass killing at Virginia Tech in 2007, she said, “that’s when we started to see talk about communication plans, text notification systems and alerts.”

But when schoolchildren were murdered by a gun-toting intruder at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut in 2012, “that was the turning point for school safety and security,” Nixon said.

“Before that, yes, we had armed officers in our middle and high schools and we were locking exterior doors. But after Sandy Hook is when preventive measure came into play,” she said. Districts started asking, “What can we do to limit access, prepare staff and allow more time for first responders to arrive?”

That same year, in 2012, voters approved a $271 million bond referendum for Blue Valley schools, with a large chunk of the money going toward safety.

Around $20 million was spent on reconstructing the front of buildings to be “pinch point” entrances, where visitors and students are buzzed in through a single front door, then must pass through the office to get to the rest of the building. Work continued on the district’s 38 buildings from 2012 until 2017, Carney said.

“We kind of resisted the buzzer system for a while, just because it isn’t as open where you’re free to walk into the building. You have to present an ID and go through it all,” Carney said. “But right after Sandy Hook, people were really traumatized. And now parents have gotten used to the new system and actually thank us for it.”

The Shawnee Mission district has been tearing down and replacing schools, partly to include safer entrances and other improvements. The district has spent $20 million on security upgrades, according to its strategic plan, and is considering another bond to continue the work.

Last year’s shooting in Parkland, Florida, only intensified the push for security, with students marching in protest and parents and school leaders calling for more changes.

Raytown was already reconfiguring school entryways to have everyone buzzed in through a single doorway. After Parkland, it spent $104,000 to equip every classroom with a Barracuda lock, a brace that spreads the width of a door to prevent it from being opened from the outside, even if it is unlocked. Employees were trained and timed to install them within seconds.

Last year, the Fort Osage school district was the first in Missouri to include staff and teachers in “stop the bleed” medical training.

That May, De Soto school district voters approved an $85 million bond issue, with nearly $4 million going toward security improvements. Schools have been adding more resource officers, counselors and security teams. They’ve been placing thousands of security cameras across buildings. They’ve changed the locks on classroom doors. And they’ve added panic buttons near teachers’ desks.

“I can tell you anecdotally that, yes, districts are spending much more money on school safety improvements than they ever have before,” said Gerry Lee, an executive director of the Missouri Center for Education Safety.

Robin Warren, administrative assistant to the principal at Overland Trail Elementary School, speaks to Melissa Oakley, who was dropping off her daughter Kaylee. The system allows the school to see guests' government-issued ID before they are allowed through the doors. James Wooldridge jawooldridge@kcstar.com

Next-level security

While some school districts are catching up and equipping schools with the basic security tools, others are taking advantage of the latest technologies.

Raytown is testing, at no charge to the district, facial recognition video camera software at its two high schools. The district will add pictures of all students and employees to the software, as well as the faces of people on the state’s sexual predator registry and anyone deemed a threat. Raytown applied for a $500,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Justice to purchase the software. Federal legislation authorized $75 million in school safety grants for fiscal year 2018 and another $100 million through 2028.

De Soto, like many districts, updated its radio system to better communicate with officials at all schools, the police and the outside community. In addition, it added LED screens throughout each school to notify students and staff of announcements, bad weather or any threats.

“In the event of a crisis, we could push out an intruder alert and that then opens the door to communication,” said Assistant Superintendent Alvie Carter. “That also allows us to push across notifications to phones and alert everyone to what’s going on. So that’s going to be huge in our day-to-day communication.”

On the advice of a security firm in 2016, Kansas City Public Schools has spent $7 million on improving safety. It added a new radio system, cameras and single entryways at all schools, trained teachers and staff on handling intruders and beefed up counseling for students. It spends $5 million a year on a private security force.

And, like the Kansas City, Kansas, district, and urban districts across the country, it installed metal detectors in all its middle schools and high schools.

Suburban districts haven’t gone that far, hoping to make schools inviting and comfortable, as well as safe.

“Sending our kids off to school in something that feels like a prison or a fortified location, that’s kind of just a sad state of being,” said Patel, the Lenexa mom. “I want my kids to be safe, and I do think districts are doing that. I don’t know that there’s more I want them to do. I don’t want armed guards or metal detectors. That could be a disaster trying to get into the building every day.”

DETECTORS ME KAM 20141009 0072F
Every student entering a Kansas City, Kansas, middle or high school passes through a metal detector every day. And district officials say that keeps their schools gun free. File photo Kansas City Star

A “culture of trust”

Luciana De Anda, a 15-year-old at Olathe East High School, began this school year hearing the news that one of her schoolmates was shot to death before he could begin freshman orientation.

“Feeling safe is something that I feel should be a given where children go to learn, but it’s almost the opposite,” De Anda said. “Every day, in the back of my mind, I know that at any moment someone can walk into my school and pull out a gun. I’m not the only one with this fear. Multiple times this year, my school has had scares concerning gun violence.”

It’s students like De Anda whom school administrators are trying to reach: students who might hear something from peers that could help prevent violence.

While schools are spending hundreds of millions of dollars on physical security upgrades, officials said some improvements are impossible to put a price tag on.

“Money alone doesn’t solve the problem,” said Carter, of De Soto. “It’s a combination of appropriate resources. But I think it’s also about communication and the interactions we have with people, whether they are friends or strangers. If you see something, you’ve got say something. That communication is central.”

“A lot of school safety can be done with climate in the buildings,” said Lee of the Missouri Center for Education Safety. “Building relationships with your kids is a measure of prevention that goes a long way and doesn’t cost a lot of money to do.

“Sometimes it is just a matter of breaking that code of silence in the school and community. Most of the time someone knows something. And money spent on prevention is the best money you can spend”

At Blue Valley, Carney said building a “culture of trust” is the key to stopping violence in schools.

“We promote a culture of trusted relationships with our kids, our employees, teachers, counselors, administrators, custodians, everyone,” he said. “It’s about having an environment where kids will go to a trusted adult in the building and tell them if something is bothering them, if they’re thinking about harming themselves or if they know of others feeling that way. We don’t want a student walking around and having people say nobody knows him or that he’s a loner. We’re not going to have that.”

That isn’t always easy. Schools have been implementing tip hot lines and encouraging students to text anonymous messages if they hear something questionable. Other schools have been adding counselors or training staff on how to maintain open communication with students.

Some students interviewed said new security measures have been helpful, while others said alarm systems and other protocols are sometimes ignored.

The issue is raised in the Shawnee Mission district’s strategic plan: “While we have a state of the art electronic perimeter control system, we continue to have issues with students and staff propping doors open or allowing unauthorized entry through locked doors. This is a serious breach of our system and must be corrected at the building administration level.”

But students all agreed it shouldn’t only be left up to schools to prevent gun violence.

“I feel like for my generation after Parkland, the whole idea of school shootings has changed, since our current lawmakers have decided they weren’t going to do anything about it,” said Hoedl, who is a leader with Johnson County Students Demand Action, which pushes for more gun control. “I think schools are doing all they can. The answer isn’t arming teachers, it is having our lawmakers step up to make change happen.”

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Sarah Ritter covers Johnson County for The Kansas City Star. Formerly a reporter for the Quad-City Times, Sarah is a graduate of Augustana College.
Mará has written on all things education for The Star for 20 years, including issues of school safety, teen suicide, universal pre-K programs, college costs, campus protests and university branding.