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Red Lake teachers get first glimpse of new security plan

Hundreds of teachers and staff from the Red Lake School District gathered Monday to hear details of a new security plan. School administrators developed the plan in response to the school shootings last March. They're hoping it will increase the community's confidence in school safety as they prepare for classes to resume next month.

Red Lake, Minn. — Some Red Lake teachers admit they're apprehensive about returning to school. Superintendent Stuart Desjarlait tried to put their minds at ease by presenting a comprehensive security plan to keep staff and students safe.

"I believe the plan I presented to the board of education was a solid plan, that provided security, not only for the students, but for the staff and the parents," Desjarlait told the group.

Desjarlait said the plan he presented to the school board last week has a $460,000 pricetag. It includes armed security guards at the middle and high schools. Locks on classroom doors will be changed to include deadbolts. Entrances will be limited to just a few. Teachers will need electronic slide key cards to get in and out.

Jean Whitefeather is principal at Red Lake Elementary School. Whitefeather says she was pleased with the new measures.

"I'm glad to hear that there's progress being made," said Whitefeather. "I don't think it's going to be done in time for school. But I'm glad to hear that we're working towards that. But I really didn't have a lot of concerns. I'm comfortable and I feel safe coming here. And I hope our kids do. And I hope our staff does."

The security plan calls for a new intercom system at the middle and high schools to improve emergency communications. And a grant from the Minnesota Department of Public Safety will help purchase more two-way radios for security and maintenance staff. Those radios will have direct access to law enforcement frequencies.

Some staff at the high school were cautious about the plan. Sheila Horn is a social studies teacher at the high school. Horn says she was encouraged by what she heard. But she says she needs to see it first hand.

They want to kind of forget it... get back to normal, the way we were, and don't talk about it so much. We're going to try to get back to normal and do the best we can to make everyone feel safe.
- Arnold Pemberton

"I'm very cautious about encouraging other people to buy into the fact that it's all going to be secure, until I've actually been in it myself to see how secure I feel it is," said Horn. "Then I'll feel comfortable telling others. At this point I wouldn't be."

Horn says the March 21 shootings were hard on a lot of teachers, especially in the high school. But she says teachers are ready to get back to work.

"I think just about everybody that's coming back wants to come back, they want to teach," Horn said. "They just wish it was pre-March."

Desjarlait says the emotional needs of teachers and students remains a concern. The district has applied for grants to fund six additional mental health professionals in the schools. Desjarlait will present more security proposals to the school board at its next meeting. Desjarlait will recommend that backpacks be banned. And he wants to change the school to a closed campus. Before last March, it was open, meaning students could leave during their lunch break.

Desjarlait says he hopes the new security plan will give the community confidence in school safety. He says the process has been stressful for everyone.

"I tossed and turned all night," said Desjarlait. "I was up about two hours there during the night, thinking about what I was going to say, and, finally my wife said, 'say what needs to be said, and if there's criticism, take it.'"

Starting Aug. 20, teachers will begin visiting the homes of students to encourage them to come back to school. School Board Chairman Arnold Pemberton says a lot of healing has taken place over the summer. He says students are ready to put March 21 behind them.

"They want to kind of forget it. You know what I mean?" said Pemberton. "(They want to) get back to normal the way we were, and don't talk about it so much. We're going to try to get back to normal and do the best we can to make everyone feel safe. That's the main thing. I'm hoping and praying nothing more will happen. I think we've had enough tragedy around for awhile."

Pemberton says the next challenge for the district will be to get information on the new security plan out to parents and students. Most kids stayed away from school last spring. The big question now is, will the new plan be enough to lure kids back to the classroom?