Immediately following the December shooting at Connecticut’s Sandy Hook Elementary School, aggressive debates on school security, mental health, gun safety and the national conscience as a whole began to dot the U.S. political and media landscapes.
Yet as the discussion continued well into 2013, plans to rejuvenate safety and security had already been developed — and implemented — on the other side of the nation
“We wanted to ease fears,” explained Ernie Ontiveros. “But we’re always thinking about safety. ... It causes you to pause and take a step back.”
Ontiveros is the supervisor of safety, security, and risk management in the Tempe Elementary School District, one of the three school districts with schools inside the city limits of Tempe. The district oversees 20 schools in a 36 square mile radius.
TESD, in conjunction with Tempe Police Department, has been revamping safety procedures, running safety training, and updating crisis management manuals found in all schools in the district for the past year.
“We have a great relationship with Tempe PD that has evolved over the years,” Ontiveros said. “It’s not quite like any other.”
In November last year, the school district held a tabletop training exercise that facilitated by the police department. Police personnel worked with principals to enhance decision making in extreme scenarios. In small groups, principals formed response plans, which they would then have to adapt as they received more information.
One of the four scenarios during the exercise — it took place a month before gunman Adam Lanza, 20, walked in to the Newtown, Conn., elementary school armed with high-powered artillery and killed 20 children and six adults before taking his own life — addressed how to deal with an active shooter.
The exercise provided district staff members valuable decision-making experience so they are prepared in extreme emergency situations, Ontiveros said.
In addition, a panel discussion was held in January, aimed at educating those tied to all of Tempe’s schools about emergency responses in various types of situations. Members of the Tempe police and fire departments sat on the panel. Paul Novak, the director of transportation and safety for TESD, also sat on the panel in addition to city emergency management team members.
Ontiveros said other changes in the Tempe district have included the reevaluation and redistribution of the Quick Response Crisis Management Guidebook found in all Tempe District schools, efforts to strengthen preexisting fencing to control how visitors can enter the school, and mandating which doors will remain locked during school hours. By the end of March, all schools in the district are scheduled to have video surveillance as well, Ontiveros said.
The Tempe Elementary School District also utilizes School Resource Officers in its schools.
State contributions to SRO programs have been all but eliminated over the years, and with limited budgets on their own, and the costs associated with having an officer on campus — one SRO can cost about $89,000 annually — schools have been forced to apply for grants through a competitive program, Ontiveros said.
The Tempe Elementary School District has been able to secure SROs through the grant process with the help of the Tempe PD. Tempe PD absorbed SRO positions into their budget with no additional funding after Arizona eliminated state funding for those positions, said Molly Enright, public information officer for the Tempe Police Department.
Tempe police provided the SRO for Gilliland Middle School and Fees College Prep Middle School in its entirety, Ontiveros said.
In addition to working with schools to secure grant funding for student resource officer positions, the Tempe police patrol also offers schools the chance to participate in the PD’s Adopt-A-School program.
“These officers make it a point to provide extra patrols at our schools during the school day,” Enright said in a press release regarding the police department’s school safety campaign.
The officers will park their marked police cars in visible locations, familiarize themselves with the facility’s layout, spend time with students, parents, and faculty while between other calls for service, Enright said.