Chamisa Elementary School Principal Suzanne Lynne, far left, introduces, from left, James Vautier of Poms & Associates, LAPS Asst. Supt. Jennifer Guy, LAPD Sgt. Chris Ross and LAPS Safety Coordinator Susan Fellows. Photo by Maire O’Neill/losalamosreporter.com
Los Alamos Public Schools and Los Alamos Police Department officials meet with with members of the public Wednesday at Chamisa Elementary School. Photo by Maire O’Neill/losalamosreporter.com
Wednesday’s meeting pertaining to a proposed fencing project at Chamisa Elementary School drew parents, school district and police department officials. Photo by Maire O’Neill/losalamosreporter.com
BY MAIRE O’NEILL
Los Alamos Public Schools are in the preliminary planning stages for erecting a perimeter fence at Chamisa Elementary School in White Rock.
At a public meeting held Wednesday evening at the school, Asst. Superintendent Jennifer Guy said that despite a lot of the rumors going around, the district is really and truly at the very first stages of the process.
“We don’t have drawings or architectural renderings because we haven’t reached that point yet,” Guy said, adding that members of the public are invited to participate in a committee being established to move the process forward.
Chamisa Principal Suzanne who facilitated the meeting said proposed front fence for the school will be decorative and not cover the front of the building. She said a 6 ft. chain link fence is proposed for around the sides and back of the school, similar to what is already in place with existing fence posts to be used.
Lynne said the plan is to have even more gates than the school has currently, that the gates would easily open for from the inside. She said that the part of the design process where people can chime in and people with people who have really good knowledge about safety can recommend how many of gates the fence ought to have.
Early in the meeting, Lynne said a concern that has been brought up is that the district really can’t prevent “something horrific from happening”.
“We clearly understand that the fence can’t prevent the highly unlikely event of an active shooter, but we do believe that access control is a step toward having a safer campus. We’re not trying to say it will be a secure compound because clearly that won’t be the case,” she said. She said if work starts on the project before summer, it will not impact the children.
Guy told those present that one of the things that seems to keep coming up is a concern that the district feels like the fence is addressing all of its safety issues.
“We don’t think that in any way. We very much understand that a fence or any physical safety things that we do are a very small piece of the overall security and safety puzzle and we’ve got a big picture going on. So around the district we’re looking at lots of different things and we’ve been doing that for several years,” she said. “We have developed a district-wide safety response protocol that we’ve implemented. We’ve hired a Healthy Schools director. We’re doing lots of mental health intervention, providing lots of support to students for social emotional, but a piece of it is we need to look at site security and physical security as well. We’re looking at staff training. We have to continually look at all things at the same time, simultaneously look big picture-wise. We understand that this is one little piece of the puzzle but we have to look at the whole big picture and all the pieces at the same time.”
Guy stressed that the district doesn’t want to remove the community’s access to use the Chamisa grounds and facilities and that it wants the field open with plenty of access points.
“We’re going to have to do a lot of opening and closing of gates. We are not trying to fence off the school to keep you off our grounds after hours. What we’re trying to do is create access control during instructional hours and so we’re just beginning to have the conversation to work out what that will look like,” she said.
Guys said staff are to be included in the planning process.
“There’s kind of this misconception out there, and this bothered me a little bit, that we have silenced staff. We genuinely have not been doing that. I told staff here today I hope staff felt heard,” she said. “They have an opportunity to talk about it. We will continue to have lots of staff meetings and continue to talk openly with every staff member.”
Asked how much the fence project is going to cost and where the funds will come from, Lynne responded that the district has received a grant from the state. She said the cost of the fence is $70,000 with anything over $36,000 being the district’s responsibility.
LAPS Superintendent Dr. Kurt Steinhaus explained that the 800 schools in the state received $6 million for safety improvements at the last minute and there were was a rush to submit a grant application for some of those funds. He said one of the requirements was that a third party official had performed a safety review on the school and that the application was based on that review. He said because of Lynne’s leadership a safety review had been performed by Poms & Associates prior to that time. Since then all schools in the district have had a review but at the time of the grant application, only Chamisa had one.
Parent Sabrina Park Bent said she wished there were representatives Los Alamos Fire Department present to have to have their feedback.
“I’m not worried about school shooters – that’s a statistically insignificant thing – I’m much more concerned about other health issues in terms of students. Why does this need to be a six foot fence versus when I look at Chamisa now it’s pretty well fenced. I agree with the state statute that there needs to be some form of perimeter around play areas for young children,” she said. She said a 6 ft. fence would make it hard for kids to get out and that she was more concerned about kids being able to get out in a fire than darting through traffic.
Poms & Associates representative James Vautier, who performed the safety reviews of Los Alamos schools, said if he had to one thing for schools in the state it would be access control.
“If we brought the superintendent from Aztec here, he would say the same thing. Let’s not talk about the violence because there’s other things that could much easier happen than the violence. My second recommendations is communications systems – how quickly can the office communicate with the portable if something happened in the portable. The third thing is threat assessment – knowing people in the – because the vast majority of violence that happens in schools is perpetrated by insider threats not outsider threats,” he said.
Vautier said to think of a fence as just one piece of the security puzzle.
“We’re not going to keep anyone out with a chain link fence – they can scale a chain link fence. The ornamental fence acts like a bollard but the price goes up. Security costs money. All we’re trying to do is delay intrusion and we want to funnel everybody to the one access point where they can be seen and people can be screened and hopefully before they get into the building,” he said. “The idea is for people not to bypass security, bypass the visitor management system.”
Vautier said any fence that goes up should have some egress points which is required by law. He said schools only have to evacuate a certain distance from a school and that he has recommended crash bars on the inside of the gates with springs on them. He said the burden is to make sure those gates self-close because if they don’t, it defeats access control.
Fran Gelfand, who has been vocal on social media recently about the fencing issue, said many people were expecting her to rail against a perimeter fence and that was not her intent at the meeting.
“Throughout this process the district has consistently presented a message that this is a plan for a perimeter fence and not a security fence and I wanted to stress this distinction. A perimeter fence is different from a security fence,” she said. She said under the state code, schools have the responsibility to provide a safe outdoor environment especially at an elementary school where there are small children.
“But one of the flaws we have here at Chamisa is that especially for the primary team is there is nothing preventing the children from running out to the parking lot area. I believe that the task of protecting the children from that hazard is very easily solved by extending the reach of the existing 4 ft. chain link perimeter fence. I have implored the district to stay true to the idea that there is a distinction between a security and a perimeter fence and I would like to see a 4 ft. fence in the front of the property with multiple unlocked gates rather than a 6 ft. security fence,” Gelfand said.
She said the proposed fence will not solve Chamisa’s lack of controlled access, that Chamisa’s top security problem is a single unlocked door on the property as a result of the portables at the back of the school and she encouraged the district to “make unlocked doors a top priority”.
Another parent said his concern was twofold.
“Schools are already extremely safe and the sorts of things concerning people here nationally are very rare events. Protecting yourself against rare events is extremely difficult if you don’t think very hard. A fence is a simple solution and I’m not quite sure what problem we’re solving. I agree that the unlocked back door is a specific problem that could be specifically addressed. I can understand the need for a fence around the school, but if you put up a 6 ft fence that significantly restricts access you will change the character of the school in multiple ways. It’s not clear how you’re going to solve the types of problems I’ve heard here with a 6 ft fence,” he said, adding that “unintended consequences” need to be seriously considered and taken into account during the process.
Some Chamisa staff members addressed their concerns on playground duty when they are responsible for keeping students safe. One person said she would much prefer to have limited access during the school day while kids are on campus.
“We have many animals on campus we’ve actually had to bring some of the dogs into the office because we can’t find owners until animal control gets here. We have kids who are afraid of dogs. I would rather have the fence up to deter things that are happening,” she said, adding that some parents who know the rules for school access chose to ignore them.
Los Alamos Police Department Community Liaison and school resource officer Sgt. Chris Ross maintained the position that he has since he made his presentation on school security concerns to the LAPS board earlier this year. At that time, Ross told the board that if the district does perimeter security correctly, it creates access control. He said if everyone is funneled into one entrance, the school knows when parents or visitors are entering which creates accountability.
Ross said Wednesday that he attended a talk given by the Attorney General’s Office where the importance of fencing was discussed. Among the attendees was the superintendent from Aztec schools
“I could see the pain on his face, the horror that he has lived through and that community has lived through and the number one thing they did was fencing on their campus. Because their campus was just like our campus – completely open access. The first thing was fences to create that security. Two students said they had no idea how vulnerable they were at school until that tragedy happened. One of them said nobody wanted to return back to campus until they built a security fence. They talked about the importance of the presence of physical security,” Ross said.
When asked about the difference made by having a 4 ft. fence rather than a 6 ft. fence, both Vautier and Ross indicated that the fence provides a delay from an intrusion.
“We’re trying to buy 20 seconds,” Ross said.
Vautier said violence is very rare.
“Schools are very safe places. Statistically, (an active shooter situation) is not going to happen. What’s more likely to happen is a custody issue where a parent comes on campus and takes their kid. It’s happened before, just because signs are for good people,” he said.
One parent said she would put a parent with a court order against them entering a school in the same bucket as an active shooter who has planned off campus and will take into account what the security measures are and work around what is there. She said the primary problem at Chamisa is not solved by building a fence, but by locking the back door so that nobody can enter into the property without being funneled through the front door. She said a fence will not prevent a person who is determined to commit a crime, who has planned a crime from doing so.
Ross mentioned that just a week ago there was the issue of a person who was not allowed to be around a school and that luckily staff caught him and held him until Ross got there. He said last semester, Mountain Elementary School had a parent that was calling and harassing the staff, making a claim that they were going to come and get their children.
“It required the school to go into a modified lockdown for three days because of a child custody issue. It is a very real concern that this district has. If we can make sure each person coming in has a legitimate reason, that’s what fencing and access control will accomplish,” he said. He added that using layers to deter, detect and delay with security at the classroom, the school itself and the perimeter can actually create safer campuses.
Requests to join the planning committee should be directed to Lynne at Chamisa.