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Editor's column: Security starts at the front door

January 19, 2013
By Per Peterson , Marshall Independent

President Barack Obama thinks he has the answers on how to better prevent school shootings, and he might just be on to something.

Obama's plan, which he released this past week, includes universal background checks to keep guns away from criminals and the mentally ill; making it easier for the government to research gun violence; a ban on assault weapons; and federal funding for police in public schools. There has also been talk of going high-tech so that a gun can only be fired by the individual who bought it.

All well enough.

Obama's is a clearly comprehensive plan, which means it attacks the problem from different angles, and that's good, because this issue has more angles than a geometry quiz - guns and ammo, video games, school security, violence on TV, mental health - and there is no cure-all for this disease. But there is a pill that might be easier to swallow that what Obama has put out there.

I'm looking at you, schools. And at you, politicians.

Our schools will tell us student safety is their No. 1 priority. Of course it is. Our elected officials will tell us we must do everything we can to ensure their safety. Of course we should. But if that's true, why is it so easy for any Joe to just walk into a school at any given time of day? The only way schools would be more welcoming to visitors is if a valet held the door open.

I believe school officials when they say they're concerned about the safety of our children and their staff; that's not the point. The point is, why can I stroll onto a school campus in southwest Minnesota or southwest Montana or southwest anywhere and walk right into the building so damn easily? Schools are not regular places of business, and in today's world, shouldn't be viewed as such. Schools are not gas stations or restaurants. They are children's homes for eight or nine hours out of the day. Locking them in means locking everyone else out.

School doors already have locks on them. So let's start using them, all day, every day. Why wait to go on "lockdown" until after we have a problem on our hands?

Could it be this easy? Yes and no. Of course, the solution is not as cut-and-dry as it sounds or as we want it to be.

There are different ways we can go with this. First, states, with the help of the feds, should do all they can to funnel some extra funding to schools so they can implement security at least at the front doors - the ones visitors will most likely use. This can include an intercom system, security camera, or a combination of both. But it also should include a key pad on which visitors would have to punch in a code (perhaps the last four digits of their kid's Social Security Number) to gain access to the school. No code? No entry.

If the visitor has a legitimate reason for coming to school - let's say Sally forgot her snowpants - it's obvious the person bringing the snowpants is a parent or relative and would therefore have the code. If the visitor has no kids at the school and no reason to be there, he wouldn't have a code.

Worst-case scenario: A person who intends to use kids as target practice gets frustrated at the front door and decides to shoot his way win, so he blasts out the glass and climbs through. Scary, yes, but at least the first shots fired (shots that would send a pretty obvious warning to anyone in the school that something is very wrong) would be at a pane of glass, not a 7-year-old. By the time the intruder gets in he has lost the element of surprise and 9-1-1 has already been called, most likely by a number of adults at the school. Any extra time teachers can buy to get kids to safety at this point is potentially life-saving.

At the Independent, we have to punch in a number code to enter the building on nights and weekends. If we forget the code or don't know it, we don't get in. Some makes of vehicles have security codes on their doors, too. Doesn't it make sense that schools should employ similar technology?

Will this cost money? Sure it will. All solutions have a price tag. Putting a cop at all schools would cost, too. For most communities, I have to assume that would mean taking an officer off the street every day - that's a solution that solves one problem and creates another. And most communities probably don't have room in their budget to hire another cop.

Locking down schools is a fine line. Marshall Schools Superintendent Klint Willert told me last week he wants Marshall schools to be welcoming and inviting to visitors, as any "community center" would be. I agree, but I still think we can hold on to that kind of environment even with enhanced security and doors that are locked 24/7. Locking down would not make schools cold and prison-like, it would make them safer.

Locks were invented for a reason, so why do we use them only at the end of the day after everyone has left? We protect our schools' computers at night with locks, let's start using them to protect our kids during the day.

Maybe we'll never be able to decide what kills people: guns or people, but what we can do is keep the bad or sick people with guns from walking into our schools.



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