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After Sandy Hook, Minnesota schools boost security

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news Grand Forks, 58203
Grand Forks North Dakota 375 2nd Ave. N. 58203

Public schools in Crookston used to have multiple entrances but now they each have just one, and visitors must be buzzed in by staff.

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It's a change to the school district's security procedure since the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn., that killed 20 students and six staff members a year ago today.

Crookston school Superintendent Chris Bates bemoans the change: "Schools were never designed to keep people out. Sadly we must do that now."

More security upgrades are ahead for the district, which will use some of the money from a $6 million referendum voters approved in November.

After the Sandy Hook shooting, school districts across the nation reconsidered their emergency plans and improved security. But in Minnesota, such measures vary from district to district, depending on the availability of resources.

Some districts have added new alarms, classroom door locks and security cameras. Some have considered hiring new police officers and security guards.

Awareness

For Bates, it didn't take Sandy Hook to raise his awareness of schools' vulnerabilities.

He was a high school principal in Litchfield, Minn., when a student killed two fellow students at Rocori High School, in nearby Cold Spring, Minn. A few years later, a former student at Red Lake Senior High School killed his grandfather, the grandfather's girlfriend at home and went on to kill seven more people at the school.

"We led the nation in rural shootings at that time," Bates said, recalling what he learned from a workshop for school officials that followed.

He became superintendent in Crookston in 2012.

Until the changes to the entrance of schools, the staff did have drills to deal with shootings and security video systems, he said.

Bates said the next step is to upgrade the security systems and the district should know the final costs around March.

'On our own'

Since the Sandy Hook shooting, schools across the state have struggled with just how much security to put in place.

The state Department of Public Safety estimates 700 to 800 school resource officers work in Minnesota, 70 percent of them are in the Twin Cities metro area.

A big question for districts has been how to pay for the changes.

Bates said that, at one time, the state could match money raised by school districts. But in the last 10 years, since the state's budget crisis, that funding has disappeared. "We've come to realize we're on our own."

Some school districts, like Crookston, has raised funds for security upgrades as part of their general referendums, others have referendums specifically for security.

That doesn't sit right with Scott Croonquist, the head of the Association of Metropolitan School Districts.

"We really shouldn't have to rely on operating referendum or a technology or a capital projects referendum to do that," he said. "That really needs to be a reliable and sustainable source of funding that the state provides."

Some funds

The state has provided some funding for schools to implement security improvements.

Lawmakers increased the school safety levy, a per-pupil fund, by $6 to $36. That gave schools $5 million more this year to spend on security or other building improvements.

State lawmakers also re-established the Minnesota School Safety Center within the Department of Public Safety at a cost of more than $400,000 a year. The center was started in 2007, but closed a few years later because of budget cuts.

Nancy Lageson, hired in August to direct the reopened center, is taking lots of calls from superintendents and local law enforcement officials who are looking for advice on school security.

"I imagine what Sandy Hook did is just make everyone look at their own individual emergency crisis plans and they are trying to figure out the best way to keep that from happening in their schools," she said.

In the coming months, Lageson said, the School Safety Center will begin holding training sessions across the state to help school officials learn how to prevent and react to school violence.

Herald Staff Writer Tu-Uyen Tran contributed to this report.

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