Back when he was working as the high school principal in Delano Public Schools, says Superintendent Matthew Schoen, visitors could bypass the front office and walk right into the school.
“The entrance was completely insecure,” he says.
Today, to enter the newly renovated Delano High School visitors walk into a vestibule then through a side door that leads to the front desk. There, they drop their driver’s license into a machine that screens for sex offenders and prints out a photo ID sticker — proof that they’ve been vetted and approved to pass through a separate secure doorway to walk the halls.
Eventually, says Schoen, he’d like to move the ID machine into the vestibule and have visitors wait to be buzzed into the front office.
It’s an entry system that’s becoming more and more common, as schools across the state rethink their approach to security.
To aid in these sorts of front entrance renovations and other safety-oriented building upgrades, the state awarded $25 million in safety grants to 123 school buildings last fall. The one-time funding came out of the 2018 state legislative session in response to growing concerns over school safety sparked by Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida that claimed 17 lives earlier that year.
The demand from schools far exceeded the amount of grant funding available. The Minnesota Department of Education received 1,187 applications, totaling $255.5 million in project funding requests.
So state officials prioritized applications that included entrance and emergency communications upgrades and made final selections through a lottery system. Half of the grant funds went to schools outside of the 11-county metropolitan area; and no applicant got more than $500,000.
Here’s a look at how, exactly, a sampling of schools put that initial state investment to use.
Front entrance redesigns
Beyond a new secure entrance, the Delano High School renovation included another addition: traffic barriers placed outside of the front door to prevent a vehicle from crashing through.
The administrative wing of the building also received some attention. The main office, long buried in the back of the building, moved to the front and was outfitted with a secure entry vestibule of its own.
Additionally, the district upgraded its entire radio system, installing a big antenna that extended reception throughout the entire building and expanded the district’s channel count from three to 16.
The bulk of these upgrades were supported by $385,000 in safety grant funding from the state. And everything’s already completed because the district was able to include these upgrades in an existing multi-year construction project paid for by a $65 million bond passed in 2015.
In Columbia Heights, where two school sites received grant funding totaling a little over $500,000, construction hasn’t yet started. Once renovations are complete, however, the front entrance system will resemble those installed at Delano schools.
“Really our focus was creating layers of access to the building,” says Bryan Hennekens, director of technology, security and building operations for the Columbia Heights Public Schools district. “One of the things we know from past events — school shootings that have happened — is the longer it takes them to get into the building, the less time they have to do damage. Because the police need time to respond, we want to slow them down, harden that perimeter.”
He’s also looking at phone apps that would better sync school security cameras and communications channels with local police as a potential future investment.
In Goodhue, a smaller district serving about 150 kids in the southwestern part of the state, nearly $500,000 in school safety grant funding will go toward outfitting the main school building with a secure entrance, similar to those described above. At the receiving dock, they’ll install a doorbell system as well, says Superintendent Evan Gough.
“We’re sitting pretty well in terms of what we’re able to do with safety,” he said, adding he knows other districts across the state are still struggling to fund these sorts of upgrades.
Before taking his current post with the district, he served as superintendent of the Blue Earth Area school district. While there, he applied for two state grants that didn’t get funded, including one to secure the entrance to his K-7 building.
One of three schools that applied for safety grant funding in the Chisholm Public School district, which is located in the Iron Range, received enough to complete a front office redesign — adding a second secure doorway to route all visitors through the front office — and to update its intercom system, along with a few security cameras.
But despite a vote-approved referendum that’s supported other building maintenance projects, Superintendent Janey Blanchard says, security needs remain — primarily at her building serving grades 4-6, which does not currently have a secure entrance.
“My other two buildings are two of the oldest in the state,” she said. “They were built in the early 1900s, so they were never built for thinking about secure entrances.”
Needs continue to outpace resources
Following the $25 million in school-safety grants, state lawmakers allocated a one-time $30 million supplement to the existing school safety aid this past legislative session. School-safety aid is an existing funding program that’s allocated to schools based on enrollment numbers to support things like safety training for staff, school-based officers and other safety elements.
But that additional funding is contingent on the state having a budget surplus large enough to first fund $33 million in other contingent appropriations that rank higher on the state’s priority list.
Meanwhile, some of the districts that missed out on the $25 million in grant funding have found a way to advance security renovations on their own.
For instance, all 10 schools in the Forest Lake Area Schools district had applied for grant dollars, but none received any. So the district used a portion of its voter-approved bond to create secure entrances — with locked vestibules and upgraded check in systems — at all of its buildings, says Superintendent Steve Massey.
He’s also looking for more ways to invest in student mental health supports through new partnerships with local mental health providers. That’s something he’d like to see the state support more.
“That is an added cost to districts — meeting the social-emotional needs of our students,” he said.
Jason Matlock, director of emergency management, safety and security for Minneapolis Public Schools agrees with the need to focus on more than just construction projects. His district received over $2 million in safety grant funding for front entrance renovations at six of its school buildings. Many will entail moving office staff from a room located deep within the building to the front entrance.
But building upgrades are just part of the safety strategy, he says. It’s something that requires a much more holistic approach that includes things like social-emotional learning.
“These grants were focused on the physical structures, but those are things that can be defeated,” Matlock said. “While someone is thinking about it, or struggling with mental health, the physical building structure can’t reach them and get them the help they need to get off that path to violence.”
Scott Monson, superintendent of Marshall Public Schools, emphasizes student mental health as well.
Two of his schools received school safety grants for installing new visitor management systems, with bullet-resistant doors and a bullet-resistant film over the windows, among other upgrades — most of which have already been completed.
These are the sorts of changes that he says community members are quick to notice. But he and his staff are also aware that student mental health supports also need to catch up to the demand that’s not always as obvious to those outside the school walls.
“[Educators] see the increase in anxiety and depression and mental health challenges that our kids have,’ he said, noting there’s a big emphasis placed on “connecting with kids, in general, and making sure they feel like they belong.”