Safety driving middle school upgrades

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The entrance at Whitefish Middle School features a new glass barrier, intended to secure the flow of traffic in and out of the building. (Daniel McKay/Whitefish Pilot)

Visitors to Whitefish Middle School may have noticed some recent changes to the school’s entrance — most notably the 10-foot glass wall.

The barrier, recently erected, is part of a set of safety improvements to WMS and Whitefish Schools, District Maintenance Director Chad Smith told the Pilot.

The goal is to make schools safer without them feeling imposing or guarded, he said, and the new wall balances the safety of one secure entrance with the friendliness of a well-lit area and glass windows.

“We didn’t want our students to feel like they’re coming to a prison,” Smith said, noting how the space between the office desk and the opposite wall lends itself well to the upgrade. “It was like it was designed for that, where you have one window to service the students and one for the public. It was a natural division point but still left enough room.”

Principal Josh Branstetter said the new area caused a few double-takes for his students returning from spring break, but the safety improvements are worth it.

A new visitor check in system is also being implemented at the front desk of the school. Visitors must provide their driver’s license to have it scanned into the school’s system to print out a custom visitor pass with a picture, name and time of admittance to the school.

As soon as visitors receive their pass, they are checked into the system, and upon leaving they are checked out to maintain an accurate recording of who is in the building. Custom passes can be printed for those who absolutely can’t provide a driver’s license, Branstetter said.

“It’s so new that people are still getting used to it,” he said. “It’s more so that we know who’s in the building. That list [of visitors], there’s times where there’s four, five, eight people. In the past they would just sign in, say I’m going to the library or wherever, and we kind of had a check in, but we really didn’t have a check out.”

“Most people who have seen it have said, ‘Oh, great idea.’ No one has really been against it,” he added.

Branstetter and Smith said such safety improvements were in the works for a while, but the September 2017 cyber-terrorism threats made to Flathead Valley schools really kicked plans into motion. Schools were shut down for several days after several districts began receiving threats as part of an extortion ploy by hackers located in a different country with no local ties.

As a result, a Safety and Security Citizens Work Group was formed for Whitefish Schools, comprising of 21 community members representing a diverse spectrum of Whitefish and Flathead Valley residents. The group developed a set of advisory suggestions for the Whitefish School Board and included a number of actions already in play, such as creating better viewing areas at school entrances, better lock down areas within schools for use in emergencies, and implementing a social and emotional learning curriculum at Muldown Elementary School.

Along with the front desk improvements at the middle school, Smith says he and Branstetter have been hard at work securing weak points in the school and setting up keycard access locks at doors throughout the building.

In some cases, like the elevator attached to the Performing Arts Center and the south side of the school, keycards with limited accessibility hours can be given to students who need them, creating a balance between allowing use and securing such parts of the building.

The school is also working on better compartmentalization, so in the event of an emergency, different pods within the building could be closed and locked down at the push of a button.

The problem with a school like WMS is it wasn’t constructed with these concerns in mind, Branstetter said. The building was originally constructed in 1912 and saw a major remodel in 2006.

“I think they had a vision, because the secretary station comes out to a point and attempts to catch you to check in, but there wasn’t anything to force people to stop. Then we’ve got Sandy Hook and the Florida Parkland [shootings],” he said, referring to the 2012 and 2018 school shootings. “That all hadn’t happened yet.”

Similar improvements are making their way to other Whitefish Schools.

This summer, the entrance of Whitefish High School is expected to get its own facelift. The front office counter will be expanded outward so staff can see who is approaching before they actually enter the school, and a visitor check in system like the middle school’s will also be added.

“One of the biggest issues with the high school right now is the office staff cannot physically see who’s coming, or what’s coming. So they do have a camera and monitor, but ideally you want a person out there who can see something approaching,” Smith said.

Smith said the high school is also looking into adding biometric security — in this case, thumb prints — to doors and buildings like the Center for Sustainability and Entrepreneurship.

The planning and design period for the new Muldown Elementary School building coincided with the safety work group and is ahead of the curve in terms of planning for security concerns.

The new school, which was approved by voters in 2017, features a single main entrance with a wide set of windows to allow front office staff to see who and what is entering the building at all times. Separate staff and receiving entrances will be limited to those with keycards or another tool, and a similar compartmentalization method to lock down the school will also be implemented.

Safety-wise, Smith says there’s not much of a comparison to be made between the new and current Muldown buildings.

“It’s miles ahead,” he said of the new building.

While the safety updates trickle in, Branstetter said the focus is still on creating a welcoming school more than a locked-down facility.

Of course further, more extreme measures could be taken, he said, but a balance needs to be found.

“There’s not big, bullet proof glass that makes you feel like you’re in a jail and you can barely see or hear them and they’re talking through microphones. It’s still that personal feel. You can go to extremes, but at what point do you stop?” he said. “You can’t keep all the bad out. But you can slow it down.”

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