by NATHANIEL NELSON
Earlier this year, Winona Area Public Schools (WAPS) moved forward with improving the security systems at several of the district’s buildings. Jefferson, Washington-Kosciusko, the Alternative Learning Center and the early childhood entrance at Goodview were all retrofitted with state-of-the-art Aiphone security systems, quelling fears and worries from parents in the district.
“The schools that didn’t have this in place had a buzzer system put in,” said superintendent Rich Dahman. “It’s a camera and voice system that the doors remain locked during the day, but when a visitor comes to the school, they push the button and the clerical staff is able to see them on the camera and ask who they are and who they are here to see.”
The security issue traces back to earlier this year. At the board’s August 2 meeting, resident Tina Burmeister spoke to the board during the public comment period about the lack of secure entrances, chastising administrators for not responding to the problem. She said she had been asking Dahman since February how the entrances to the elementary buildings would be secured for the coming school year, particularly after it was reported that two individuals entered the building without being vetted. “There’s no school within 50 miles that has unlocked doors,” Burmeister said. “When talking to parents and staff of other school districts they were in shock and disbelief that our schools are not secured.”
Board member Allison Quam had previously proposed adding Aiphone buzzer systems to W-K and Goodview at Wold Architects and Engineers’ estimated cost of around $26,000 to the list of state-funded maintenance projects. After discussion among the board and Dahman, the motion failed to pass and instead, the board asked administrators to bring options to the table for the next board meeting.
Dahman said local firm Digicom offered a quote of $19,000 that would fund the buzzer system entrances for all four elementary schools. The board unanimously approved that plan, and the district used money from its general fund to put the systems in place before the school year began.
Dahman explained that the impetus for the addition was the uncertainty of the now-passed 2018 property tax referendum. Initially, the buzzer system was included in the list of projects, but with no assurance voters would approve the property tax increase, the district chose to move forward with the plan.
“The secure vestibules were only funded through the referendum, so [the Aiphone system] was to put something in place prior to that to make sure something was in place in time for the school year,” Dahman said, adding that the technology will be able to be moved to the updated entrances once the projects are completed.
Prior to this, the four schools had gone years without any meaningful security upgrades. While cameras were in place at all buildings, the main doors were left unlocked during the school day and individuals could enter as they please, with signs directing them to the front office to be signed in.
There has been an identification system in all district buildings, however, called Raptor Visitor Management. Visitors have to present their ID, which is checked against a national database of sex offenders and other unsafe visitors before being approved for entrance.
“Visitors are then issued a pass, which is a sticker they wear when they are in the school,” Dahman said. “Every adult in the building should have some way they can be identified.”
The next step for the district lies in the large number of security projects detailed in the referendum. The biggest of those projects, and one of the most labor intensive included in the referendum, are the aforementioned secure vestibules. The vestibules will have two sets of doors, similar to the entrances at the Winona Senior High School and Winona Middle School. The first set will remain unlocked, allowing people to come in out of the cold and speak with school security inside the vestibule. Before passing through the second set of doors, they might be vetted and sign in.
Dahman explained that other aspects of school security will also be improved, including adding new security cameras and upgrading current cameras to a more modern system. The district will also add lockdown buttons and lockdown lighting to all schools.
“In some areas, like the cafeteria or gymnasium, it can be difficult to hear an announcement when the school is sent into a lockdown. We’re going to put in lights and teach students and staff that if those lights go off, we’re in a lockdown,” Dahman explained.
Parents have been voicing complaints for some time in the district. In a recent survey of families who have left the district, nearly one-third of responses stated that their child did “not feel safe” in the district. Which Dahman said he is unsure whether that alluded to safety concerns or student behavior, adding that the district is working to improve both over the next several years.
“Making sure that we have a safe and secure environment for students is one of the most important things that we do. Unfortunately, society has changed and school shootings have become more common than they used to be,” Dahman said. “We need to create an atmosphere that makes [schools] as safe as possible.”