Safety changes implemented at high school

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District Maintenace Director Chad Smith and High School Principal Kerry Drown explain safety improvements made to the school over the summer. (Daniel McKay/Whitefish Pilot)

Students returning to Whitefish High School this week after the summer off might notice some changes at the school.

The high school recently wrapped up a front office remodel, with the new changes hoping to increase safety and security within the building.

Among the changes are the locked second set of doors at the front entrance, which now requires a secretary or other employee within the office to open. Between the two sets of doors, there’s also a new window for communicating with office staff, dropping off simple items like a forgotten textbook or a check, and gaining a visitor’s pass to enter the school.

The high school now uses the same Raptor Technologies visitor pass system as in Whitefish Middle School. Once actually inside the school, a visitor will also notice the office wall itself has moved out a few feet, allowing staff to look down the walkway leading into the school and see who is coming. A new set of garage-door gates are also able to lock down the office at the flick of a switch.

WHS Principal Kerry Drown said the improvements came out of the same conversations about safety that led to similar changes at WMS and better ground-up safety design at the new Muldown Elementary School under construction.

In September 2017, cyber-terrorism threats made to Flathead Valley schools kicked planning 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.

While the improvements at WHS were just implemented this summer, Drown added that attention to safety and security has also been on the table since the school opened in 2015.

“Some things started soon after we built the high school, some conversations started with some of the craziness happening around the country, the various violent acts and mass shootings and things like that, and we said, ‘Are we being proactive enough here with our design?’” he said.

Biometric locks are also being added to a few parts of the school, where students and staff can access locked rooms and areas with their a fingerprint, though that won’t be up and running until later in the school year.

Altogether, the front office changes cost about $65,000, Drown said, which came out of tax increment finance payments from the city.

Drown says so far he’s only heard positive feedback from staff and visitors to the school, though he knows there will be an adjustment period for parents who frequent the school.

In his time as an educator and administrator, Drown says the recent changes are one of the biggest he’s seen.

“We’ve definitely taken a giant leap from an open door policy to a controlled access philosophy, and we’re recognizing that even small town America is vulnerable, unfortunately. It’s our top priority, ensuring the safety and security of our kids and staff,” he said. “That’s number one. Until people feel comfortable with that, the learning’s not going to happen.”

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