Washoe County Examines School Safety, Climate

Mar 8, 2019

Nevada lawmakers are considering legislation aimed at mitigating school violence by addressing the need for greater security and increasing access to mental and behavioral health resources. The Washoe County School District is tackling similar issues. There will be a single, secure entrance at all elementary and middle schools by next fall. Administrators are also working to foster a more safe and healthy learning community.

Nick Poulakidas Elementary School is under construction in South Reno. Like all new schools, this one is being designed with a security feature known as single-point entry, which requires all visitors to go through a check-in process.

Tami Zimmerman oversees school capital improvements for Washoe. The district has also been retrofitting older facilities, averaging about $145,000 per installation.

“It stops them at the front entry vestibule,” Zimmerman says. “We also have secure perimeters that keep anybody off the campus until they are vetted through that front door and through that main office to know: Who they are? What they are there for? Do they have an appointment? Are they allowed to pick up their children?”

All Washoe County School District elementary and middle schools will be retrofitted with single-point of entry by next fall. Funds from ballot measure WC-1, which passed in 2016, raised the county sales tax for school capital improvement projects.
Credit Anh Gray

Washoe began work on single-point entry about 10 years ago, but the construction sped up when WC-1, a ballot initiative, passed in 2016. The measure raised the county sales tax to fund school capital projects. And with the national spotlight on mass shootings, Zimmerman says the district was motivated to move quickly.

“Parents want them sooner, the community wants them sooner, and we feel that we need to protect our students and staff and that’s why we’ve made this such a priority,” Zimmerman explains.

Marvin Picollo Elementary School in Reno was retrofitted about a year ago. Laura O’Mara is the school principal.

“Before the single point of entry, we had several entrances and access to our building, people could have gotten in from many different doors and, oftentimes that would happen,” O’Mara says. “We’ve had several parents comment about how they feel much more secure, especially with some of the violence that [has] occurred in the country at schools.”

But a single-point entry is just one way to improve security, according to Michael Dorn, the executive director of Safe Haven International, an agency that evaluates school safety concerns across the nation and abroad. Dorn has a law enforcement background and has been in the campus safety field for more than three decades.

“It definitely makes it easier to try to secure staff and students and to prevent intruders from getting into the building; it can be quite effective,” Dorn explains. “But as a caution: there are no measures that are 100 percent reliable.”

And, there have been shootings instigated by someone who is supposed to be on campus. That’s what happened at Sparks Middle School in 2013. A 12-year-old student brought a gun from home and killed a teacher, himself, and also injured two others. What having a single, secured entrance can do is help deter other potentially dangerous situations.

“The homicides that they’ve been more effective at stopping have typically been, for example, acts of domestic violence,” Dorn says, “where one party tries to come into the school to harm a person they’ve been in a relationship with, or to come in and attack an educator, or to come in and attack someone’s child.”

The Washington Post found that, since 1999, school violence involving gangs or with intended victims is more common than random acts. Nearly 65 percent of school shootings were targeted. That’s much higher than the 22 percent that were indiscriminate. To reduce homicides, Dorn says it’s more effective to implement strategies that root out the potential for violence.

“I would say student supervision, that’s one of the most important things to reduce fatalities of almost any kind,” Dorn says.

Even though the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that mass homicides at schools have increased between 1994 and 2018—reaching the highest rate last year—there is still a relatively low risk of a student dying on K-12 campuses. Of all youth homicides in the nation, less than 2 percent happen at school. Regardless, any death of a child is heartbreaking for their families.

Misty Vaughan Allen is a member of the Washoe County School District Safe and Healthy Schools Commission. As Vaughan Allen explains, the commission “is looking at all aspects of improving school climate, including the hard structures such as single point of entry, school fencing, other safety components in schools, as well as mental health and well-being for the students." 

"I always think that we often focus on preventing danger from entering the school, but there are vulnerable youth and challenges within the school that we also need to be highly aware of," Vaughan Allan said.

With more than two decades working in suicide prevention, Vaughan Allen says the risk factors indicating the potential for self-harm and the ones for violence can overlap. The district trains teachers and school staff to identify those potential risks. And according to the CDC, nearly half of perpetrators committing homicide provided some type of prior warning.

“There might be isolation, turning towards social media to seek connection—maybe there—withdrawing again from friends and family, maybe stockpiling the means—the lethal means—putting out indicators about harm and death and violence that you might see online or in other writings,” Vaughan Allen explains. “So those are indicators that they need help.”

Many schools in the Washoe County School District have secured fencing.
Credit Anh Gray

Focusing on mental health and well-being at school is important to Cinthya Munoz. She’s dropping her son, who is in the second grade, off at the Dorothy Lemelson STEM Academy Elementary School. Her son has experienced bullying, so she wants families to take a more active role in ensuring a positive school environment.

“It’s your responsibility to teach your kid that it’s not okay to hit or if they have a problem with somebody, they need to go and speak to them and not result into violence,” Munoz says, “and it’s seems like everybody results into violence right away instead of talking about it.”

Student behavior, researchers have found, is closely linked to parent engagement. As for school violence in general, Munoz says the single-point entry does make her feel a bit better.

“Because everybody that has to get in through the school has to go through the office,” Munoz says. “I was very terrified at first, just because you hear about all this gun violence, and you know it’s scary sending your kids to school knowing that all this gun violence [has] happened.”

Carl Young is dropping off his 10-year-old granddaughter.

“It could definitely deter it a little bit,” Young says. “I don’t know the thinking those people could have, intent on violence, I mean they could burst through the single point-of-entry, I suppose.”

Young says instead of creating barriers like single-point entry, he values fostering a tight-knit community.

“The teachers my granddaughters had, and the other teachers—we participated up here quite a bit—are just so outgoing,” Young explains, “and trying to engage all the kids, and I think that’s the key to good community is engagement.”

The morning commute is also time to connect with his granddaughter. “For instance, coming over today,” Young says, “we’ve got about a four mile drive from our house over here and me and her talk about what’s going on in school. ‘You got any field trips coming up?’ ‘Well, they don’t tell us ‘til the last minute.’ I try to find out what she’s been doing, I know they’ve been studying magnetism.”

For Young, school safety isn’t about building fortresses; it’s about building trust and relationships.