In wake of Florida shooting, Berkeley School Board approves $2M safety project

Jefferson Elementary is the next Berkeley school in line to receive “Columbine locks.” The School Board approved $2 million for additional safety measures Wednesday. Photo: Google Maps

Exactly two weeks after a mass shooting at a Florida high school killed 17 and rattled students and educators around the country, the Berkeley School Board approved $2 million for a plan to make its own campuses more secure.

At its meeting Wednesday night, the board gave staff the go-ahead to use existing revenue from the Measure I facilities bond for more “Columbine-style” locks, fencing, communication infrastructure and other safety measures throughout the district. The $2 million will allow the district to first conduct evaluations of the school sites in question, then implement the appropriate security features.

“In light of all the events that have happened in the last year, we feel it’s necessary to look at what we’ve done so far, where we are now and what we’re planning to do,” said Superintendent Donald Evans, introducing the item Wednesday.

The new plan furthers existing school safety efforts, which began in earnest after the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Connecticut. In 2013, BUSD hired consultants to conduct a facilities safety analysis across the district. The consultants recommended Columbine locks on all school doors, along with stronger communication and surveillance systems. The locks, named after the 1999 mass school shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado, can be bolted from the inside of a classroom. The board allocated $2 million to carry out that plan in 2014 as well.

But BUSD Facilities Director Tim White, presenting to the board, said the implementation of those projects has so far been “piecemeal.” According to the district, six schools are now fully outfitted with Columbine locks, and Jefferson is scheduled for the upgrades this spring, but the other campuses are still vulnerable.

“The urgency has always been there,” said board member Beatriz Leyva-Cutler. “Regrettably it’s 2018 and we’re still working on this.”

Getting the $2 million up-front for the district-wide effort will speed up the process, White said. According to the staff report on the board meeting agenda, it costs $150,000 to $375,000 to install Columbine locks throughout one site alone.

Ahead of the meeting, staff was requesting $1 million, per the direction of the district’s facilities committee, but ended up asking for, and receiving, the $2 million. The committee initially requested the lower amount because fewer details had been provided then, and because the group had made an unusual decision to bring the item to the board without extensive discussion first, said board member Judy Appel, who sits on the committee.

“Given the urgency of this right now,” Appel said, “and just worrying about how safe our campuses are… we decided since we didn’t really have the time to fully deliberate in the facilities committee, we would bring it to the full board.” On Wednesday, she and other board members said they were comfortable with the $2 million price tag.

Board member Ty Alper asked White to estimate when the projects will be completed.

“When can we say to parents, ‘This work will be done and this site will be secured to the level we’d hope it is?'” asked Alper.

White said he was uncomfortable making an estimate at this point, but said he would come back in 90 days with concrete plans. He said the district will have to work with architects and engineers to assess whether existing doors can even accommodate the locks.

Charts: BUSD

But it is the right time to pursue these safety efforts, White said.

“We believe now is the time to do as many campuses as we can, given the climate,” he said. “Since last year’s Nazi rally in the park next to Berkeley High, it’s been a troubling thing,” White said, referring to protests by the right and far-right at Civic Center Park last year, which were met with antifa counter-demonstrations and often resulted in bloody fights.

The deadly shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in Florida kicked the district’s effort into higher gear. In the immediate aftermath of the tragedy, many Berkeley school and district leaders sent out letters to families pledging to keep their kids safe, to the best of their abilities.

In the case of a violent intruder, BUSD uses a protocol called ALICE, or Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter, Evacuate. Schools have completed, or are planning, lockdown drills, though at least one elementary school told families last month that students there would be shielded from these concepts.

“We have not discussed these protocols with students, as we believe it is developmentally appropriate to focus instead on preparing the adults to respond effectively if faced with a crisis,” said Thousand Oaks Principal Jen Corn.

The Berkeley Police Department has prepared in the past for active shooter situations, including by conducting simulations at schools. Leyva-Cutler told White on Wednesday that BPD should be made aware of the facilities plan as well. Some members of the community questioned the School Board’s decision last month to cut two of Berkeley High’s 15 safety officers amid the heightened security concerns.

Berkeley High and at least some other schools in the district are planning to participate in the National School Walkout. The March 14 event was organized by the Women’s March youth chapter and is meant to raise awareness of school violence and call for stricter anti-gun laws.

The $2 million Berkeley safety plan got easy unanimous approval from those on the dais. The board gave another green light to the facilities department later Wednesday night as well, approving the creation of a facilities master plan. The effort will set the stage for  a new facilities bond measure on the 2020 ballot.

A top priority in the new plan, White said, is the completion of projects not finished under Measure I. The costs for several of those projects, including the renovation of Berkeley High’s Community Theater and A-Building, were highly underestimated at the beginning of 2017 and were recently projected to be way over the Measure I budget.

Other priorities include the completion of the district’s solar-paneling plan, education technology upgrades, career technology education facilities and furniture and equipment for project-based learning, White said. The priorities could be reshuffled during the community process ahead of the 2020 bond.