Safety at our Schools & on the Routes to School

| 2015 Q3 | story by TARA TRENARY   


Heading back to school is an exciting time for kids. Supply-filled backpacks, new clothes, haircuts—everything they need to make this school year a successful one. A few stolen quiet moments is all we parents can think about. But what about making sure this school year is a safe one for our children and the community as a whole?

“Safety is the top priority in our district,” says Ron May, USD 497 administrative services director, who oversees safety and transportation for the Lawrence school district. “It is foundational support for everything we do toward our mission of educating children.”

In most U.S. cities, schools are the centers of the community, sanctuaries for teaching and learning. Keeping our communities free of crime and violence should be the main goal. But the challenges schools face daily in developing and maintaining a safe environment for learning can be complicated. Nonetheless, we must make sure our schools are safe and effective learning facilities for students and families. This has been a challenge the Lawrence school district has faced head-on recently with the $92.5-million bond issue, approved by voters on April 2, 2013, to improve facilities and educational opportunities for students and community members.

“Safety was an important part of the bond-issue planning process,” May says. A Department of Homeland Security representative conducted a walkthrough of all USD 497 buildings, providing input on security measures that needed to be taken. Incorporating those suggestions, a renovation plan was put in place for Lawrence schools. Upon completion of the renovation, all schools should have:

  • • a secure entrance that requires visitors to check in through the office before being allowed access to the building
  • • new electronic locks, allowing teachers to lock their rooms with a remote FOB, similar to a car lock
  • • updated video surveillance systems
  • • new or reinforced storm shelters, where needed

Though bond-renovation projects at each Lawrence school are in various stages, Cordley Elementary is one of the schools that is now complete, with classes already back in session at the upgraded facility. (To see where your child’s school is in the bond-construction process, visit

“Student and staff safety is Cordley’s first priority,” explains Scott Cinnamon, Cordley principal. “We know that learning can’t occur if students and staff do not feel safe at school.”

To enhance safety at the oldest elementary school building still operating in Lawrence, Cordley’s renovation included a new safe entry on the south side of the building, where visitors can enter a vestibule and be greeted by office staff. Visitors are buzzed in from this vestibule and issued a badge. All other doors to the building, minus those south-side entrance doors, remain locked throughout the school day, and all classroom doors now lock automatically when closed. Teachers operate classroom doors with a keypad.

Security cameras were in operation before this renovation, but many more have been installed throughout the building. A sprinkler system has been added, as well as a speaking fire/tornado lockdown alarm that functions throughout the school. Finally, an addition built in 1951 that initially housed the school’s boilers has been cleared and now functions as a secondary shelter for students and staff.

“I think all of the improvements to our facility, which was originally built in 1915, help to support a safe and healthy learning environment for Cordley students,” Cinnamon says.

District-wide, each school has a crisis plan required by law, May explains. The district has an Emergency Operations Plan (EOP) that outlines steps to take in the event of various emergencies, as well as a process for continuing basic operations in the aftermath of a disaster. The Lawrence School District’s EOP was developed in collaboration with representatives of Douglas County Emergency Management, the Lawrence Police Department, Lawrence-Douglas County Fire Medical Services and First Student, Lawrence’s school bus transportation provider. There is also mandatory safety training for all USD 497 staff.

Schools are required by the state to conduct one fire drill per month, as well as three tornado and one bus-evacuation drill per semester, May continues. Although the district recommends two, schools are required to conduct one lockdown drill due to a safety threat per year. Crisis plans specific to an intruder are also in place and have been for several years, and law enforcement has been invited to observe and give feedback on those, he explains.

Keeping everyone notified when a crisis arises can be a tricky situation, especially today, with so many more possible dangerous situations arising every day. Communication is key, not only among school officials but also between the school, district officials and parents.

“Open and ongoing, two-way communication between home and school helps to keep our school safe,” Cinnamon says. “We ensure safe learning communities when everyone looks out for one another.”

On the district level, an Incident Command System (ICS), the same system used by first responders, is in place to assign roles to individuals in the event of an emergency, May explains. There are role assignments at the school level, and if things escalate to the district level, there are then role assignments for district officials.

On a day-to-day basis in the schools, “We focus on education and prevention measures,” Cinnamon says. “We teach children about positive behaviors, such as kindness, responsibility and respect for others. We discuss digital citizenship so children know how to be safe when using technology. We encourage frequent hand-washing and covering coughs and sneezes to prevent the spread of germs.”

Lawrence schools also have an automated notification system, SchoolMessenger, to call and/or email parents in the event of an emergency.

“We rely on our students and parents to let us know about any safety concerns so we can address them,” Cinnamon explains. “If children see or hear of something that bothers them, they should tell an adult. If parents see or hear of something that concerns them, I hope they will call the school office and report it.”

Safety within the schools is one thing, but what about safety on the way to school and back home? How do we, as a community, come together and help keep all of our citizens safe during those times of the day?

A good way to start is the Safe Routes to School (SRTS) Initiative, an international movement dedicated to encouraging students to walk and bike to school. The Initiative promotes environmental protection, overall safety for the community and improved student academic performance due to exercise.

Started in the Lawrence community in 2014 as a collaboration among several local organizations—the City of Lawrence, Lawrence Public Schools, Lawrence-Douglas County Metropolitan Planning Organization, LiveWell Lawrence and the Lawrence-Douglas County Health Department—other groups, including the Lawrence Police Department, City of Eudora, Eudora Public Schools and Lawrence Parks and Recreation, have recently come on board. With no formal officers to oversee the Initiative, all of these partners play an important role in keeping the program functioning and effective.

“It is a unique program,” says Chris Tilden, director of community health at the Lawrence-Douglas County Health Department. “There are so many moving pieces. [Initially] We didn’t know how complicated it could be.”

Unlike most communities that start off with only one or two schools, Lawrence began the SRTS program with 18 participating schools—14 elementary and four middle, with two private schools having recently joined. A longer-term goal is to add high schools.

The initial question before implementing Safe Routes into the Lawrence community was simply, “How do we create a community that’s safe and active?” Tilden explains. Because physical activity was a big piece of the 2013 Community Health Plan, and with planning and health-department grant funding added in the fall of 2014, SRTS in Lawrence now had a good place to start.

Currently, 14.6% of Lawrence residents either walk or bike to school, but the Initiative hopes to increase that percentage. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend 60 minutes of physical activity per day for students, and since more than half of K through 8 Lawrence students live within a mile of their schools (about 54%), this goal seemed achievable here. “It’s more of a cultural phenomenon,” Tilden says.

The Initiative officially got started in Lawrence last year and is just this year beginning in certain schools. “This year, we’re starting full force,” Tilden says. The program is designed with six elements to encourage walking and biking: evaluation, education, encouragement, engineering, enforcement and equity.

1. Evaluation for the Lawrence community has included conducting student travel tallies, parent surveys and community meetings to gather information and assess SRTS program progress. All the data collected are not only used within the Lawrence community but are also part of a larger national data set on SRTS.

2. Education involves getting out in the community and educating not only students but also parents and community members about being safe when walking and biking to school, as well as when driving. Also as part of this education element, physical education teachers have put together a bicycle-safety curriculum to be started this year, beginning with the basics being taught directly to fifth-graders. By next year and dependent on funding, SRTS hopes to have a bike fleet in place with League Certified Instructors to travel to all schools and teach students extensive bicycle safety.

3. Encouragement means “making it fun for kids and families to get out of their cars and have fun going to school,” explains Rebecca Garza, health promotion specialist with the Lawrence-Douglas County Health Department. Kids get incentives in the form of tickets that they can use in their schools for prizes. There are “Walk to School” and “Bike to School” days in which families can get involved. And schools hold activities such as fairs, all in the name of creating safety awareness within the Lawrence community.

4. Engineering is likely the most complicated piece of the SRTS puzzle. It includes maps, routes, sidewalks, maintenance—all things that can help make getting to school either safe or unsafe. The Lawrence Public Works Department is on the SRTS team helping with the logistics of the engineering aspect, the part that takes the longest and costs the most money. There is a Tier System in place, with Tier 1 schools choosing to go full force ahead, while Tier 3 schools dial it back because of a lack of time or resources due to bond construction. Liberty Memorial Central Middle School is the first Tier 1 school in Lawrence, with Woodlawn Elementary School also participating as Tier 1.

Tilden explains that SRTS partners must prioritize areas and maintenance needs for sidewalks and trails, and work with other plans within the city to create a stronger, safer pedestrian network. “It’s a long-term initiative,” he says.

5. Enforcement is getting everyone involved—drivers, walkers, cyclists, parents, teachers—while working with crossing guards and Lawrence police to follow all safety guidelines. The Initiative also hopes to implement student Safety Patrols in the near future to help with this element.

6. Equity, the only element not a part of the official SRTS program, ensures all students can equally access the program and are safe, regardless of socio-economic status. “We want for everyone to be safe, even if they’re walking not out of choice,” Tilden says.

Funding for Safe Routes to Schools is key to keeping Lawrence kids and families safe when traveling to and from school. Though there has been money to get the program started in the community, there are still elements of the SRTS program that will need further funding in the future.

“It’ll take continued funding from a variety of local and grant sources to make this as successful as possible,” Tilden says.

SRTS funding now in place includes:

      • The City of Lawrence is using a Kansas Department of Transportation (KDOT) Phase 1 SRTS grant to support Public Works for its involvement in SRTS. The City has talked through the program with community partners, given professional feedback on recommendations for route placement and improvements, as well as provided input on other city-related SRTS issues, such as the current school crossing policy issue. The Lawrence-Douglas County Health Department is working with city staff members from the SRTS to create suggestions and best practices for a revision of the school crossing policy. They hope to have these suggestions ready for input by the school district sometime in November.
      • The Lawrence-Douglas County Health Department is using a Chronic Disease Risk Reduction grant, from the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, to support ongoing community-wide coordination as well as to assist in public education and raising public awareness. The Lawrence Public School district also uses the funds to support school-level initiatives, such as creation and implementation of the new bike and pedestrian curriculum.
      • The Lawrence-Douglas County Health Department is using a CDC Partnerships to Improve Community Health (PICH) grant to support ongoing community-wide coordination, as well as to assist in public education and raise public awareness.

Being bold and aggressive has lead to a really positive outcome, Tilden explains. Even in one year, SRTS has made a lot of progress, and he hopes a lot of that will show this year.

The Lawrence School District, schools officials and community organizations and members continue to work hard to make sure our kids and families are safe both in and outside of school. From a $92.5-million bond approved by Lawrencians in 2013 to a community-wide program designed with the safety and health of all as a top priority being introduced just this year, the City of Lawrence is trailblazing and on track to becoming the healthiest, safest community it can be.

“We hope the community and parents will get involved,” Garza continues. “If the community is safe for students, it’s safe for everyone.”

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