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How Michigan school districts are ramping up security after Oxford, Uvalde shootings


Northville — The black and purple key fob in police officer Mike Brown's hand grants him swift entry through all 41 exterior doors at the 600,000-square-foot Northville High School, where 2,500 students spend the school day.

In school emergencies, seconds matter. Brown needs less than three seconds to hold the fob against a security pad and step inside the sprawling, modern school. It's a big difference in response time compared with the past method of fumbling with a key to open a box, which contained another key that granted access only to the school's front entrance during an emergency.

"This is on every single first responder's own key chain," Northville Superintendent RJ Webber said. "That is important because time is everything in these situations. We didn't want there to be any delay with access. This can get into all 41 doors within seconds."

At the start of the school year in August, Northville Public Schools gave individual key fobs to members of three local police departments — Northville, Northville Township and Novi — so officers can gain access faster to their buildings during emergencies.

"With the new model, we are able to keep the fob on our key chain, the same key chain that starts our police car," said Brown, the school resource officer at the high school, as he stood Monday outside Northville High.

"We have that through our entire patrol day, on-duty, off-duty, and we have access to the building. We are taking a proactive approach and trying to learn from other situations. It's a huge improvement for the schools and the police departments."

Ten months after the deadly shooting at Oxford High School that killed four students and four months after the school massacre in Uvalde, Texas, that killed 19 children and two adults, Michigan's K-12 schools are ramping up their security efforts. They are adding armed guards on campus, assessing their campuses for safety risks and rolling out new technologies, such as biometric screening kiosks and gun-detection cameras. 

Soon, districts will have more money to spend on security upgrades. Starting Oct. 1, Michigan districts can tap into the additional $210 million granted for student safety in the state's 2023 budget. Roughly $168 million is for discretionary school safety needs, $25 million is for hiring school safety officers and $15 million is for cross-system partnerships between schools, law enforcement and mental health professionals.

Officials at Vassar Public Schools in Michigan's Thumb area plan to use money from their portion of the $210 million for a six-year contract with ZeroEyes, an artificial intelligence-based gun detection software that is designed to prevent active shooter incidents. 

Paired with existing surveillance cameras inside and outside the school, and monitored by former military personnel, the system can alert authorities to the presence of a gun carried in plain sight within seconds. The district had the system installed in August on 70 cameras across its buildings, Vassar schools superintendent Dot Blackwell said, and is using bond money to pay for the initial year of the contract.

Blackwell said she received hundreds of images of people, backpacks and briefcases being scanned during a demonstration this summer of the system. 

"It was non-stop. All the imagery from those cameras," said Blackwell. "There is a retired law enforcement or retired military person that was watching this. There were quite a few hits. I was more excited after I saw it working, and I said, 'Oh my God, someone is actually watching this.'"

Earlier this month, Anchor Bay School District began phasing in the first of five armed guards at its school buildings. Superintendent Phil Jankowski said the armed personnel are retired law enforcement or military with specialized training and certifications.

"They are not uniformed security but rather dressed in khakis and polo shirts with a firearm visible in a holster," said Jankowski to parents in an August email, announcing the hires. "The plan is for these individuals to be more than a person sitting at a door or in a car. They will help with arrival and dismissal, and provide an extra set of eyes on the playground or when students are outside."

Before school started, the district conducted onsite active shooter training with multiple jurisdictions, trained more than 30 people for the district in ALICE (safety) protocols and began the process of installing door barricades on more than 700 doors, Jankowski said.

The armed guards in Anchor Bay, about 40 miles northeast of Detroit, are the start of planned additional security measures as the district waits until November to start spending on a bond for security cameras, door barriers and renovating its elementary schools to create a safer infrastructure.

Tapping grants for site assessments 

Jason Russell, founder and CEO of Secure Education Consultants, was at Southfield High School for the Arts & Technology last week for a site assessment to ensure the district is fully prepared for future threats.

A former special agent with the United States Secret Service, Russell works directly with school personnel to evaluate safety and security measures, build customized emergency response plans and provide critical incident response training. He founded the Grand Rapids-based company in 2012.  

Earlier in the month, a 16-year-old student was arrested for bringing a loaded handgun to the school

During his visit, Russell sat with school leaders including James Jackson, the district's chief of staff; David Reese, principal of Southfield High School for the Arts and Technology; and Paul Careathers, the district's director of security, to discuss the school's safety measures before touring the high school.

The group walked around the facility's interior and exterior. Russell checked school security cameras, classroom doors, entry and exit doors and observed its overall infrastructure. He said he looks at everything that touches safety and security. 

"Do they have plans in place for specific types of emergencies? What kind of trainings do they do? Our assessments are 360-degree comprehensive: physical security, policy procedure, training equipment," Russell said of the questions he asks districts.

The district was granted funding for a safety assessment. Russell said Michigan's school safety funding will include grants for Michigan schools to conduct these kinds of safety assessments. The security company has over 700 upcoming safety assessments scheduled in over 100 Michigan school districts.

Russell queried the school staff about security during students' extracurricular activities, the faculty's internal communication system in an emergency, visitor entry protocol and law enforcement's ability to enter the school and classrooms. He learned about the school's door locks, windows and speaker system. 

"We try to create reports and recommendations that are actionable. We try not to give a school a list of things that they can't or won't do," Russell said, adding that the security company takes funding and culture into consideration when recommending safety upgrades. He said the biggest issue he sees in most schools are communication issues — emergency alert systems, for example.   

New security measures in Oxford

Oxford Community Schools added multiple security measures before the start of school and is adding more throughout the year.

This summer, the Oakland County district launched its three-year-recovery plan that addresses new safety and school security, mental health, social-emotional learning, staff wellness and retention and other measures.

Biometric scanner kiosks were installed at three entrances at Oxford High School in August. The district is using a weapons detection dog at the high school with its own district handler and had NightLock safety shades installed on door windows in classrooms. The district is already using a private security company to provide trained, armed personnel in every school building, has installed digital ID readers for student entry at the high school and hired a second school resource officer for the district. 

It continues to test ZeroEyes at the high school on 30 cameras. The district plans to increase that number to 80-100 cameras by the end of September.

ZeroEyes software was installed in March, and monitoring on Oxford High School's cameras began in April. The software will remain in place through June 2023. Oxford also requires middle and high school students to continue using clear backpacks.

Parents in Oxford have been demanding increased safety measures since the Nov. 30 shooting. Oxford parent Jessica Tonkovich told the Oxford board of education last week she wants the biometric scanner kiosks, known as Evolv, to be used at after-school events, such as swim meets.

Tonkovich said she noticed the technology was in use at outdoor football games and asked for it to be expanded to all after-school events on campus. The board took her comments under advisement.

"Students participating in sports after school are bringing their bags (from home after school) and are not going through Evolv technology. That is causing my child, when she is able to enter the building, to have panic attacks," Tonkovich said.

"I'm not that saying we are not safer. We are way safer. I can tell as we are going through the day it's a safer day. The perception of safety and these moments for them are what is their reality," Tonkovich said.

Tragedy 'close to home' inspires other districts

Like other school superintendents, Caledonia Community Schools Superintendent Dedrick Martin paid close attention to every school shooting that happened across the nation. While Caledonia Community Schools is about 140 miles away from Oxford High School, the tragedy felt close.

"Being that close to home really raised the bar of everyone wanting to see increased security and what we can do to keep kids safe," Martin said. "There was some expression of people who wanted to see more officers in our facilities. We wanted to do everything we could within reason to keep our kids safe."

The district, located on the west side of Michigan outside Grand Rapids, has had a school resource officer on staff for more than five years, Martin said. But this fall, Martin added at least 10 new school security positions to staff payrolls to allow the SRO to broaden districtwide coverage for security. 

Two school safety officers, who are retired police officers, and civilian safety aides started on the first day of school in all nine school buildings.

"The new (safety officer) positions are newly created support staff who are former licensed officers who recently retired. They are allowed to carry (firearms) in our school, and they assist with school security and monitor our doors, hallway and safety related," Martin said.

The positions were paid with general budget funds, and the two safety officers are on contract with no benefits in the district with 4,700 students.

"We put them in and the kids saw them more like hall monitors and got used to them. There was no big planned roll-out. They started to interact with kids," Martin said. "Because of their experience, they can quickly communicate with the SRO and police."

The Michigan Association of Superintendents and Administrators surveyed its member districts about their programs for school resource officers. About 65% of respondents said they had one on staff and 97% said the officer collaborates with local law enforcement. MASA officials said 54% of those who responded as having an SRO identified as being in a rural district and 39% were suburban.

While the SRO is the lead in all buildings, Martin said safety officers are there to support "once the rest of the cavalry arrives" in an emergency.

"We feel more comfortable knowing we are better situation than we were last year," Martin said.

jchambers@detroitnews.com