Security varies at Northland schools

Kristy Berdice had a tough time dropping off her 5-year-old daughter, Peyton, at Laura MacArthur Elementary Monday morning. "I repeatedly told her how much I loved her and kissed her," the Duluth mom said. "It's just scary. School is probably the...

Police car at East High School
A Duluth Police Department squad car sits in front of East High School on Monday morning. (Steve Kuchera /
Steve Kuchera / File / Duluth News Tribune
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Kristy Berdice had a tough time dropping off her 5-year-old daughter, Peyton, at Laura MacArthur Elementary Monday morning.

"I repeatedly told her how much I loved her and kissed her," the Duluth mom said. "It's just scary. School is probably the safest place, and (shootings) aren't an everyday occurrence, but they are happening more and more. It could be the last time I see her."

Berdice, giving voice to what no doubt went through the minds of many parents Monday after Friday's elementary school shooting in Connecticut that left 20 children and six educators dead, also worried about security at her child's West Duluth school. As at all new or refurbished Duluth schools, the main entrance is the only one open during school hours, and visitors must enter the school through the main office.

"But there are numerous times I've been in there and no one is in the office," she said. "Once you are in the office, you can enter the school."

Other area school districts, depending on the age of their buildings, have even less-stringent security measures. Some leave more than one door unlocked during the school day for handicapped accessibility, and few have police officers assigned at schools, relying instead on proximity of police stations. Because of limited resources, security upgrades are put off, some district officials said.



At Carlton, for example, officials would like to move the elementary school office next to the main entrance, which would mean moving classroom space.

"It's a costly item," said Superintendent Peter Haapala, noting the district's crisis plan is under "intensive scrutiny" following Friday's events. "We need to make sure we are doing what we need to be doing to keep our kids safe."


At Floodwood, which held a lockdown Friday after a rumored gun threat, the school has electronic control of its doors and is able to lock them in an instant. Like Duluth, the main entrance is next to the office where people sign in.

"We do have the ability to buzz in, because it does increase security," said Superintendent Herb Hilinski. "We're not doing that now, but we're in the talking stages."


One Cloquet school -- Washington Elementary -- has doors that allow people to be buzzed in, said Superintendent Ken Scarbrough.


It was done there because the building structure allowed for modification. Some people have been frustrated by it, and some have appreciated it, he said.

At other schools in the Cloquet district, access is limited throughout the day with some doors locked, and security cameras are in place. A new policy dictates that visitors to those schools must check in and receive a badge, and if they don't have one, they are stopped in the halls. Police visit the schools on a daily basis but aren't stationed at any of them, Scarbrough said.


Marshall School in Duluth, where students wore green and white Monday to honor the students from the Connecticut city, secures all but one entrance at its school during the day and guides visitors via signs to its main office, where they are to sign in. The independent school with grades 4-12 has security cameras but no police presence.

Marshall offers its building to Duluth police to run school shooting emergency drills at night, with Marshall drama students and faculty working as actors, said Head of School Michael Ehrhardt.

"It's tragic, because the security system they had in place in Sandy Hook, someone shot their way in," he said, noting that the actions by educators saved a lot of lives.

The school practices lockdown drills regularly and will continue to do so, having debriefings after each one.

"We try to improve that process," Ehrhardt said. "You have to be quick on your feet."


The Minnesota Department of Education requires that public school districts and charter schools practice five lockdowns a year.


Safety features in Superior schools include security cameras, restricted access and police presence: one officer each at the high school and middle school and one who travels among the elementary schools.

One of their roles, said Superior Police Chief Charles LaGesse, is to protect against threats.

Friday's shooting has led Superior administrators to re-examine their crisis plans, which have been in place since 2000. Armed with suggestions from building principals, Stevens plans to meet with LaGesse this week to formulate recommendations for the School Board.


Duluth Superintendent Bill Gronseth said the district has crisis plans for "just about everything you can think of."

It's difficult to prepare for a situation like what happened in Newtown, he said, "but we can talk about it to have common pieces in place, so there is some stability and knowledge."

Gronseth said he's been told by Duluth Police Chief Gordon Ramsay that Duluth schools are among the safest in the area. Duluth has police officers stationed -- one each -- at its high schools and middle schools. Its schools have security cameras, and visitors can walk into the main office, where they sign in and must be buzzed or let into the rest of the school.

"Our buildings were designed with security in mind," Gronseth said, "but we continually evaluate our practices to ensure it."

All districts take note

Officials from each school district interviewed Monday said they held staff meetings to talk about how to deal with student reaction and questions about Friday's shootings in Connecticut.

Esko Superintendent Aaron Fischer said the high school observed a moment of silence for the victims and their families.

"We wanted students to have as typical a day as we could provide," he said.

Barnum Elementary Principal Tom Cawcutt said teachers were given resources from the National Department of Education and the State Principals' Association on how to talk with students about school tragedies. They were told to keep their conversations about the shooting at a "developmentally appropriate" level and let the students' emotions guide the discussion.

"Going over too many facts and details often adds more concerns and fear," Cawcutt said. "Some of the students weren't even aware of the incident. And some knew too much."

Superior Telegram staff writer Maria Lockwood and Pine Journal Publisher Wendy Johnson contributed to this report.

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