VNL Investigates: Student safety comes at a cost, which most schools say they can’t keep up with

Published: Aug. 16, 2022 at 6:24 PM CDT
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FARGO, N.D. (Valley News Live) - How secure do you think your kids are in the classroom if shots were to ring out and kids were told to lockdown? Would the shooter be able to get inside?

For weeks our Crime and Safety Reporter Bailey Hurley has been digging into how schools in the Valley are keeping your children safe, the improvements still needed and the financial barriers that stand in the way. More than 15 local school districts on both sides of the river were contacted for this story, but only a handful of those were willing to talk about school security on the record. Some cited privacy concerns, others just flat out did not respond.

“The most prized possession a parent has comes to us, and for a moment to think we can’t keep them safe, it’s heartbreaking,” Northern Cass Public School Superintendent Dr. Cory Steiner said.

Safety is forever evolving for schools. Districts revise security plans as they learn from the districts already victimized and also take advantage of new tactics and technology to better prepare should evil ever walk through their doors.

“You hope and pray that it never happens here, or locally, but the reality of the world today is that we have to be prepared and respond,” Morgan Forness, Central Cass Public Schools Superintendent said.

Part of that preparedness lies in shooter drills and lockdown training, which the Cass County Sheriff’s Office has made a priority as it’s hosted several real-life scenarios for first responders, students and staff across the community on what to do in the case of an active shooter.

“You’re going to have muscle memory when something goes bad. You’re going to rely on your training. Hope it doesn’t happen, but if it does, we’re prepared,” Cass County Deputy Jason Scott, Central Cass Schools’ full-time school resource officer said.

The other half of the safety equation lies in doors.

“It truly comes to your first line of defense and that is those locked, exterior doors. If they can’t get in, there’s not much damage they can do,” Scott said.

“Statistically, it gains you about 1.5 to 1.7 seconds in a situation by already having your door locked and closed,” Taylor Sauvageau said. Sauvageau is a former Fargo Police officer who has recently turned into the Fargo Public Schools Coordinator of Safety and Emergency Management.

A 2020 survey by the National Center on Education Statistics found one in four schools across the country do not have classroom doors that can be locked from the inside, which is a key security feature that was missing in the devastating school shooting in Uvalde, Texas in May of 2022.

“If I would say there’s one major issue in our building, it’s that,” Steiner said.

Northern Cass, Central Cass and Kindred are just a few of the schools in the Valley without interior locking doors which has forced districts to get creative to ensure everyone in the building is secure.

“All of our teachers pretty much have their doors locked all of the time, but during the school day they put a magnetic plate on so it doesn’t lock, and in case of an emergency all they need to do is remove that metal plate, the door automatically locks,” Forness explained. “It takes less than a second.”

Forness says the magnet doesn’t have to be anything special, almost any magnet will do. It’s placed over the latch to prevent the door latch from engaging. With the magnet, the latch is not engaged, hence why the door can be opened freely while the lock is still engaged on the door. Once the magnet is removed, the door is locked from the outside as normal.

The large local districts including Fargo, West Fargo and Moorhead Public schools all got back to us and state most, if not all doors in their respective districts lock from the inside.

To combat the security shortfall, districts try to ramp up safety measures elsewhere. Both Northern and Central Cass recently revamped their entrances, and they now corral visitors to only come through the office, sign the guests in with their drivers licenses and escort the visitors to where they need to be.

“We now use an identification system where they’ll scan their license and it’s able to do quick background checks,” Steiner said.

“I think the greater challenge is the community expects access to the school. This is their school! And sometimes it can be conflict if they perceive they’re not allowed inside because they say, ‘Don’t you trust me? What do you think I’m going to do?’ And you want to be welcoming, but you have to do it in a reasonable means as well,” Forness said.

To upgrade locks for every door within Northern Cass’ building, Steiner says it could cost between $50-150,000, which is an amount Steiner says the district doesn’t have the budget for. He added this school year, the school board will consider if the changes needed within the building warrant a safety mill to be brought to the people to vote on.

At Central Cass, Deputy Scott says the district is in dire need of an upgraded security system. One bid to the district estimated the work would total more than $250,000, and Scott’s grant to the state asking for that money has already been denied once.

“It’s hard to get funding for something that people really don’t see or understand how important all those pieces are,” he said.

“The traditional model of funding schools just does not provide for those extra expectations that are placed on schools. I think the state legislature is going to have to look at how schools are funded,” Forness said.

Wednesday on Valley News Live at 6: Part two to this investigation. Schools are asking, but are state officials listening? Can more money be handed out for security? And if so, how soon? We try to find the answers.

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