Police recommend safety options to LAPS board

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By Bennett Horne

The Los Alamos School Board heard security recommendations from the Los Alamos Police Department during its monthly meeting Tuesday night, proposals the department feels can help make the district’s students, teachers and staff safer than what they may be now.

Chief Dino Sgambellone and Sgt. Chris Ross attended the meeting. They addressed the board before a presentation by Ross, and then answered questions at the conclusion of the presentation.

Ross began his presentation to the board by pointing out the fact that the last time a student was killed in a school fire was in 1858 when 92 students and three nuns died in a fire at Our Lady of the Angels Catholic School in Chicago. The school apparently ignored a lot of the common practices at that time when it came to fire safety and what they were doing to prevent possible fires.

After that incident he explained that 16,500 school districts across the nation changed the way they do things where fire safety and prevention is concerned.

“That’s almost 70 percent within one year,” he said.

Ross then made the correlation that the same immediate action needs to be made where school shootings are concerned.

“Next year will be the 20-year anniversary of Columbine,” he said. “What have we done within our schools to make changes? We’ve seen what one fire could do and how changes can help in that situation. We need to do that same thing as a community, as a school district and as a nation.”

Ross noted that, according to FBI statistics, there have been 45 instances of active shooters in the past 15 years: five at elementary schools, seven at middle schools, 17 at high schools, 15 at universities and one at an Amish school. In those incidents 120 people were killed and 242 injured.

“We saw what the nation did with only 95 people killed in a school fire,” Ross said. “This calendar year we’ve already had 23 kids killed. So I recommend we start to take this very serious because we can see it’s not slowing down.”

Ross then began to outline the LAPD’s recommendations of the implementation of a three-pronged plan to make the district’s campuses safer. He cautioned that this plan doesn’t eliminate the risk of an active shooter coming to a campus in the district, but that it could reduce the odds of that happening.

“Any of these recommendations that we put out there are not ever going to prevent these things,” he said. “There will always be a threat. But if we look at things in a layer approach we can hopefully minimize our threat of becoming a victim of one of these things.”

The first step is improving perimeter security on each campus, which, he said, is mandated by New Mexico administrative code.

“It’s actually a regulation that all schools must be fenced,” he said. “And it’s not only just for people, but also for wildlife.”

Wild animals are known to go wherever they have access, and Ross gave an example of that scenario from an incident that happened last fall.

“My children go to school at Aspen,” he said. “They told me they got out for recess one day and there was a buck and three does on the campus. The kids got out there so quick that some of the students actually started to chase the deer around on campus. Imagine what would have happened if that buck would have decided to protect his does and a kid gets hurt from those antlers.

“Perimeter security,” he noted, “could have possibly prevented something like that from happening.”

The second item in the proposal was that of access control and how people – visitors and students, staff and teachers alike – can be funneled into the areas where the school needs them to go.

“Fencing helps with access control because people can be directed to where you want them to go through strategic placement of fencing and gates,” Ross said.

But while some see fencing and gates as a good security measure, others liken it to the idea of being incarcerated.

“The one argument I hear about fences is that it’s going to create a prison,” Ross said. “But in our community we already have fences at our homes, our parks, the pools we go to, Sullivan Field, the airport and all over the lab. I don’t think anybody at any of those locations ever feels like they’re in prison.”

Fences are commonplace around the backyards of hundreds of homes and Ross said it’s because at our homes “we want our kids to go out into the backyard because that makes us feel safe.”

He added, “It’s a privacy issue, but it’s also a security issue. We know who’s coming in and coming out.”

A recent inspection of the Chamisa Elementary School campus resulted in the addition of fencing being listed as the top priority.

The third item on the department’s list of recommendations was the change to a keycard entry system.

“Key card access is important for access control throughout the campuses,” said Ross. “We have keycard access in our police department. All I carry around is an electronic fob, but it controls what buildings I can and can’t go into at our department. I can’t go into every building.”

But people lose their keys all the time. So what happens when they lose the electronic means of entering their campus or any of its buildings?

“If I lose this fob,” Ross said, “all they have to do is get onto a computer and activate another one for me and we’re back in business. And they can determine the hours and days when this key can be used. You can program it to where it can only be used Monday through Friday from 8-5, for example.”

That entry system could also work hand in hand with a system that would allow all doors to be locked with the push of a single button.

“We can also look into the idea of putting in a system where one person pushes one button and all the doors in the building are locked,” he said.

Those are just two examples of how each campus could be set up for easy access or denial of access.

“With the current system of keys we’re using that’s hard to do,” Ross said. “And in a stressful situation it’s very hard to try to get a key into a keyhole. You’ll lose those fine motor skills. But with one of these fobs all you have to do is wave it in front of the door and it’s locked. It’s very simple.”

Ross said these three topics – perimeter security, access control and keycard entry – are all items that should be addressed.

“We feel as a police department those are the three biggest needs in our school district,” he said.

And he said these three are important steps to a safer school district.

“We want to create that onion affect where we have a solid core with multiple layers of protection. The better security we have out there the stronger our core is going to be. The less layers we have the weaker the core will be.”

He continued, “Currently we have already started working with staff and students on active shooter situations, so we’re already working at strengthening that core. We want to continue strengthening those outer layers.”