V.I. schools updating security in wake of recent school threats
Published: January 19, 2013
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ST. THOMAS - School shootings on the mainland as well as threats of bombs and violence against staff at the territory's schools have forced officials to examine ways to beef up safety on campuses and make crisis response plans more comprehensive.
At a meeting Tuesday, St. Thomas-St. John School Superintendent Jeanette Smith-Barry culled recommendations from principals for improving each school's security. Smith-Barry said she plans to produce an updated security and crisis response plan for the entire district, but she said that the review of the recommendations would take time.
In the month since the Newtown, Conn., shooting on Dec. 14, a bomb threat forced the evacuation of Woodson Junior High School on St. Croix, and Gladys Abraham Elementary School on St. Thomas was put into lock-down following telephone threats to "shoot in the face" the school's principal, assistant principal and a teacher.
No one has been arrested in connection with the bomb threat at Woodson Junior High. Vendel Williams, 33, was arraigned and pleaded not guilty Wednesday to federal charges in connection with the Abraham Elementary threats.
"The incidents have highlighted the absolute need to make sure the plans are updated and communicated to everybody and not just plans that are sitting on shelves," Smith-Barry told The Daily News. "We are putting a lot more emphasis and a lot more time into security."
St. Croix Superintendent of Schools Gary Molloy said the last complete review of his district's emergency and crisis response plan was done last school year with the input of V.I. police, the National Guard and the Virgin Islands Territorial Emergency Management Agency. He was confident that the current plan was "very up to date" and accounted for "every possible emergency scenario."
The district's emergency response capabilities were tested, however, by a rash of bomb threats targeting the Ricardo Richards Elementary School in April, causing three delays in school opening as authorities blocked off roads and searched the premises. As yet, no one has been identified and prosecuted for those threats.
Molloy said the more recent incidents at Woodson, Gladys Abraham and in Newtown, Conn., would prompt him to undertake yet another policy review of the same scale this year.
St. Thomas-St. John Police Chief Darren Foy said the "active shooter" training conducted last week by the V.I. Territorial Emergency Management Agency directly addressed concerns about his officers' ability to respond to a Newtown-type situation. In that exercise, 72 local law enforcement officers learned from instructors with military and Homeland Security backgrounds how to limit the loss of life in the event a gunman opens fire in a public place.
Regarding more proactive measures for maintaining safety on school grounds, Foy said the territory's schools had many outdoor hallways and courtyards and, therefore, more points of entry. The open building designs presents the biggest challenge to security, he said.
The outdoor designs of the territory's schools requires more manpower to secure than traditionally designed schools, Foy said, but he does not have plans to allocate more of his officers to the V.I. Police Department's School Resource Unit.
Foy declined to say how many of his department's officers are in the School Resource Unit.
"The Education Department is still analyzing what they have and what they need," Foy said. "We have not sat down with them yet, but it is something that we will consider, and if we do have the resources to fill that void, we will."
Joseph Sibilly, deputy superintendent of the St. Thomas-St. John District, said he has toured every school in his district in the last few weeks with an engineer, looking for vulnerabilities.
Sibilly said he had been working already on equipping more schools with video surveillance entry posts before the recent incidents prompted reviews, so that public access is controlled and recorded.
Currently, six schools are protected by the systems, which require a person to use an intercom to ask permission to enter while cameras record their image. Sibilly said he plans to put such a system up at Ulla Muller Elementary School and is getting quotes for installation. He estimates the system will cost between $8,000 and $10,000.
Sibilly also said elementary schools lack monitors and that he would like to hire more personnel for patrolling the grounds, as they do at the junior high and high schools.
"I would like to see monitors at all schools, but this financial crunch is hitting us hard," Sibilly said. "All I have right now is a budget for maintenance and repairs. We may have to seek special appropriations from the Legislature as well as grants from agencies such as FEMA."
Sibilly said he also would consider assigning school resource officers, who are officers in the V.I. Police Department, to elementary schools, but the idea did not rank as high on his list of necessary changes. On St. Thomas and St. John, resource officers patrol only junior high and high schools.
Other proposed changes he is considering are adding more perimeter fencing to Charlotte Amalie High School and Eudora Kean High School; making sure security cameras are operating round the clock, not just during school hours; and hiring more personnel to patrol school grounds.
Sibilly said more capital funding definitely will be needed in order for "long-term, more costly" improvements, such as more wrought-iron perimeter fencing at the high schools.
Both Molloy and Sibilly said they are trying to avoid making heavy-handed changes that will make schools feel and look like prisons.
They rejected ideas about armed guards at every school that have been debated and hyped in the national media since the Newtown shooting.
"Personally I think it would be a shame to force us to that level," Molloy said of the armed guards. "School is supposed to be a place of learning, and it's not supposed to be a prison. But at the same time, we have to ensure the safety of our students and staff."
- Contact reporter Amanda Norris at 714-9104 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.