Many Utah schools weren’t built with security threats in mind, but renovations are expensive

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SALT LAKE CITY – Brightly colored student artwork adorns the walls behind a brand new addition to an elementary school in the Granite School District.

“We’ve had situations where angry parents try to come onto campus and are frustrated with the door situation,” communications director Ben Horsley said.

The door situation he is referring to is a $1 million+ renovation project that created a secure, single-entry-point vestibule. The update is intended to give authorities control over who enters the building and represents a significant change from the school’s original layout.

“Before, you had to enter the building and enter the reception desk here,” Horsley said, pointing to a hallway in front of the new secure entry point. “And then they would have immediate access to the rest of the building, and that’s not acceptable in the current climate and circumstances.”

He recalled a situation in which a parent who did not have custody of his biological child once entered the school, assaulted an employee and kidnapped the student. The incident, although frightening, ended without the child being harmed.

“We’re actually seeing these kinds of situations cropping up much more than, thankfully, what we’ve seen coming out of Texas,” Horsley said, referring to Tuesday’s deadly shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas.

Yet the school’s new reception location and secure entry point are also intended to thwart an active shooter situation.

The security renovation was funded by a 2017 ratepayer-approved bond.

“Most of our schools were built decades ago, long before tragic events across the country sparked discussions about improving student safety,” the district’s website explained. “The bail will provide security upgrades to better protect against intrusions.”

In 2018, Horsley showed KSL another security feature aimed at elementary schools called the School Gate Guardian System. The digital login system performs instant background checks to flag sex offenders. At the time, Horsley estimated that every elementary school in the district could have the new system within two years.

Now, four years later, he said the district has yet to install a dozen such screening systems.

“There have been delays,” he said.

On Wednesday, Horsley said two more schools currently have safe-entry projects under construction. Seven other elementary schools still need safety upgrades.

“These things cost money,” he said. “They cost a lot of money.”

When asked what was causing the delays, Horsley explained that the cost and timeliness of construction work had changed significantly since ratepayers approved the bond package.

“A lot of these things are delayed because of a project that cost over a million dollars in our present time, a few years ago, could have cost $600,000 or $700,000,” he said. he declares. “Inflationary construction costs have increased by 50-80%. We are having a hard time convincing people to bid on our projects due to the current construction climate. »

In order to prioritize projects, Granite School District officials had to identify the most pressing needs.

“When you see what’s happening on the news, you can’t help but wonder and be worried. And so, we prioritized all of our security-related projects, based on actual threats and data,” Horsley said.

Ben Horsley, director of communications for the Granite School District

Several non-safety construction projects have been delayed for seven to nine years, according to the district’s website, but Horsley said they are still tackling safety-related projects as quickly as possible.

On Wednesday, the Granite School District released a list of other safety measures in place, including:

  • One-stop entrance (where possible) with key card access for employees, including all exterior buildings/removable doors.
  • Identification/visitor badge requirements so that everyone is easily identifiable on our campuses.
  • Over 5000 security cameras throughout the district monitored by a 24/7 dispatch center.
  • In addition to the local Police Academy (SRO) Resource Officers, we have 24 Granite District Police Department SROs to help provide security and coverage for the entire district.

At the state level, the Utah State Board of Education School Safety Center was established in 2019, tasking a group of law enforcement, education, and mental health professionals with seeking support and resources for healthy and safe school environments.

“We need to look at school safety from a holistic perspective,” said Rhett Larsen, student and school safety specialist. “We shouldn’t assume the problem is just guns or the problem is just mental health issues.”

Larsen said Tuesday’s mass shooting in Texas left him “heartbroken,” but he wanted to assure parents in Utah that steps were being taken to keep students safe.

“When tragic events like this happen, you know, it can skew school safety and make us feel like our schools aren’t safe,” Larsen said. “The data shows that our schools are generally safe spaces.

Asked about the biggest areas of concern in Utah schools, Lt. Nick Street said, “The Department of Public Safety is losing sleep at night thinking about this issue.”

Street, who is part of the Statewide Information Analysis Center’s Threat Management Unit, said that across the state, school infrastructure remains a concern.

“We like to try to encourage environmental design that can save lives and provide safety if, you know, God forbid, we ever have a horrible school shooting here in our state,” he said. Explain. “But this environmental design comes at a cost.”

Many schools were not built with an understanding of the security threats students and educators face today, he said, and some rural communities lack the tax base or support needed. to implement important security upgrades.

“I think Utah State is doing a really good job of mitigating the areas where we might be lacking,” he said.

Both Street and Larsen encouraged parents to have conversations with their kids about safety, monitor their social media usage, and get familiar with the SafeUT app.

“If you look at school shootings, they’ve almost always been leaked to other students,” Larsen said. “Someone knows this is going to happen. We must continue to promote the SafeUT program. If you see something, say something.”

Have you experienced something that you think just isn’t right? KSL investigators want to help. Submit your advice to investigations@ksl.com or 385-707-6153 so we can work for you.

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