Taryn Smith, Ontario school district public relations and communications director, talks about the upcoming bond vote last week in Ontario. District leaders will ask voters to approve a $25 million bond in May. (The Enterprise/Kristine de Leon).

ONTARIO – Twenty-five years ago a school shooting was a rare occurrence.

But times have changed.

Just over a year ago, 17 students and faculty members at a high school in Florida were gunned down. A few weeks later, another gunman shot and killed 10 people in Texas.

School security is now a major priority for learning centers across the nation and Ontario School District is no exception.

Nicole Albisu, Ontario School District superintendent, said security has become an educational priority.

 “One of the things that we focus a lot on is safety. We want kids to be able to come to school and to feel safe, be safe at school,” Albisu said. “That’s our job. Parents should feel that they are able to send their kids off to school. They should feel that we’re going to take every measure to keep kids safe, even in the light of a threat from the outside.”

Last year, police and district officials reported that a 15-year-old Ontario High School student was overheard making threatening remarks against other students and a notebook found in the student’s backpack contained a threat to blow up the school. Although the sophomore didn’t have firearms or explosives, he was arrested for disorderly conduct.

“We take those threats very seriously and we were fortunate at the time because we’ve done so much work with kids and security in general,” Albisu said.

Ontario school district officials say the recent incident at Ontario Middle School, where a 14-year-old student was found with a loaded gun at school, underscores the need for safety.

Security improvements are a key element of the $25 million bond the district is seeking. The bond would cost property owners about $1 per $1,000 assessed value, or $150 a year for a $150,000 home. Ballots go out starting May 1 and election day is May 21.

“We all have to deal with what’s happening in the world with school shootings and we have to be as preventative and proactive as we possibly can. All we can do is to take all the opportunities that we can to slow people down if they’re wanting to do harm,” Albisu said. “So securing buildings is a big one.”

Albisu added that newer schools are designed with the extra safety features, but the older ones have outdated entrances.

In Malheur County, new schools such as Nyssa Middle School and Vale Middle School have included a double door system at the main entrance. Visitors are expected to immediately check into the office before they are buzzed in.

However, most Ontario schools have no secure vestibule to restrict visitors from getting past the front office and into the rest of the school. The school district wants to change that with the bond.

About $6 million of the proposed $25 million bond would add secure vestibules at Alameda Elementary, Aiken Elementary and Ontario High School.

“At our high school, for example, somebody could walk right into that high school and go right on past that office because the office can’t see the entry unless they’re looking,” Albisu said. “When you have a high school that has about 32 entry points, you have to secure that so that you don’t have intruders coming in back doors. It’s challenging because we want to be able to say our kids are safe during the day.”

She said it’s rare, but individuals walking by schools occasionally try to get in.

“In our community, we have a lot of people with needs and there are certain schools in our community where we have individuals who are just desperate for help and try to get into the buildings,” she said. “That is an encounter that is unfortunate.”

Vestibules would curb much of that, she said.

“We’ve done just about everything that we feel we can do within our capacity to keep our buildings safe,” Albisu said. “Part of the challenge is sometimes people might not notice when a stranger gets in the building.”

“The other thing is that we often have, as any town does, we have police emergencies. They might be trying to apprehend a suspect, and in some cases we have to go into a lockdown,” Albisu said. “A self-contained building such as May Roberts, which is probably our most secure building in the district because they have the double set of doors, is what we want.”

Albisu said the secure doors were installed at May Roberts Elementary School with the district’s last bond. “They have switches at all the buildings, so they can hit the switch and all the exterior doors automatically lock,” Albisu said.

Taryn Smith, the district public relations officer, said vestibules would add an extra layer to help with the daily efforts to secure schools.

“There’s a lot of research backing secure entry point and design of entry point … is a deterrent for a parent who comes in angry,” Smith said. “Just not having open access to the building is pretty heavily supported with data on it as being a de-escalator.”

Smith added that the district had put in a lot of thought into the design and floor plan for the upgrades to meet security standards. At the same time, the district doesn’t want students to feel as if they go to school in a prison, she said.

Schools have to consider how to balance the statistical risk against the potential for random terror, while creating an environment that doesn’t feel too restrictive, Smith said.

A community survey last year found security upgrades were the top priority among those responding.

The district hired a security consulting firm to evaluate every school in the district, producing recommendations for how to make students and teachers safer.

Albisu wouldn’t disclose the security recommendations to the Malheur Enterprise for security reasons. However, she said the district took into account the security recommendations in crafting the school bond.

“However, I don’t want people to think that we haven’t done anything,” Albisu said. “In reality, we have done so much in regards to safety.”

For example, to increase safety at the high school, Albisu said students and staff have been required to wear badges every day, use only certain doors to get in and out and sign in.

To increase safety, the district has upgraded door hardware and intercom systems at some schools.

At the high school, Albisu said students have been required to wear badges every day, use only certain doors to get in and out and sign in.

PART 1:

Ontario School District wants bond to improve security, drive construction projects

PART 2:

Malheur County school district aims to use bond to renovate aging buildings

Have a news tip? Reporter Kristine de Leon: news@malheurenterprise.com or 541-473-3377.

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