Belen Schools researching ways to keep district students, staff safe

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Belen Schools officials are busy implementing suggestions two board of education members made about making schools safer for students.

Board members Larry Lindberg and Lola Quintana, as part of the audit committee, reviewed each of the 11 Belen sites' school safety plans, outlining precautionary procedures principals and teachers take to ensure students' safety during an emergency.

The review was in response to the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in December, where 20 children and six adults were fatally shot by a gunman in Connecticut.

After a month of visiting each school site, the two board members had more than 10 suggestions to add to the plan. Suggestions included the installation of more cameras on school grounds, hiring security aides for all sites and adding additional safety locks on classroom doors.

"It's helpful for us to have another set of eyes, head and brain to see what other alternatives we need to look at," said Belen Superintendent Ron Marquez.

A few of these suggestions are being implemented now, Marquez said, but others, the district will have to wait until funds are available.

With these suggestions, each elementary school and school nurse received district-issued cell phones to act as a walkie talkie system and fixed the malfunctioning public address system at Dennis Chavez Elementary School.

The board members suggested developing alternative evacuation maps, as well as continue practicing fire drills, evacuation drills, lock down drills and medical emergency drills already in place.

"Let's say they have an evacuation route out the front door. Well, what if the front door area is on fire? Then we want to see an alternative route," Marquez said.

Teachers, students and staff practice evacuation drills from their classrooms and alternative evacuation drills from the playground during recess, the cafeteria during lunch and from buses at the beginning of the school day.

Lindberg and Quintana also wanted schools to continue alerting parents when drills are in effect through School Reach.

"Three weeks ago, when we had an issue at Belen Middle School, we had to go into a lock down," Marquez said. "We were able to call (parents) immediately, and when we lifted the lock down, which was 10 or 15 minutes later, we were able to make the second call and we were able to, at that point, make sure parents knew what was going on."

Lindberg and Quintana want cameras placed at each of the 11 school sites. Cameras are installed at four sites, including Belen High School, Belen Middle School, La Merced Elementary School and Henry T. Jaramillo Community School.

The $1 million set aside for safety and security in the $23.75 million bond, approved by voters in February 2011 to improve aging structures within the district, will fund installation of these cameras, Marquez said.

Each school needed to create a signal that would notify principals or administrators in a lock down the status of the students inside. For example, a teacher may place a signal seen from the classroom window that notifies administrators that students inside are OK.

Adding high security locks and possibly different doors on classrooms or alternate areas where students can be kept safe was another suggestion. The locks would be placed high enough in elementary schools to where a teacher or staff member can reach, but students couldn't.

The board also wants at least one security guard at every elementary school by the beginning of the 2013-14 school year, Marquez said. The two schools with security aides are Belen High School, which has five, and Belen Middle School, which has three.

Funds for additional security would need to be included in next year's budget and might come out of the operational budget.

Other suggestions were limiting school entrances to specific gates, adding higher fencing and repairing missing fences, replacing crumbling concrete which create a tripping hazard, and having more teachers and staff be CPR and CPI, crisis prevention intervention, certified. Those certified in CPI will have the skills to verbally de-escalate a situation.


-- Email the author at aortiz@news-bulletin.com.