Gresham-Barlow district creates new safety czar position
Going to meet the Gresham-Barlow School District's new director of district safety and security at Kelly Creek Elementary School, a visitor finds the school's front doors locked.
When you push an intercom button and explain the reason for entering the school, a secretary buzzes you into the office. After signing in and donning a badge, then — and only then — can a visitor get into the school.
Kevin Sutherland, who took on the newly created role, acknowledges that his job is to strengthen the security and safety measures already in place at the 12,000-student district.
"I'm passionate about" student and staff safety, said Sutherland, who spent 21 years in the U.S. Marine Corps and later in law enforcement. "My role is to enhance the safety program."
A lot of improvements, such as the door buzzer, were made possible through the $291.2 million bond voters in the school district passed in November 2016.
The bond initiatives limited access points to school buildings, upgraded equipment for emergency communications and installed locks on the inside of classroom doors, among other safety improvements.
Now the central office can communicate with the entire school in case of an emergency. Transportation dispatchers can also communicate with bus drivers if needed.
The schools upgraded the sound of their fire alarm. Instead of a shrill noise, the alarm is a calm voice — designed to reduce anxiety in an emergency — giving instructions to exit the building.
Sutherland has experience in school safety and security.
He was director of safety and emergency management for the Beaverton School District for about eight years. Prior to that he was a deputy in the Washington County Sheriff's Office for about six years.
As a deputy, he was a school resource officer, a member of the student threat-assessment team and part of the sheriff's office's hostage negotiating team. He spent more than 20 years in the U.S. Marine Corps from 1979 to 2000.
"The superintendent and the (school) board created this position to focus on student and staff safety," he said. "I'm excited that it's a top priority."
Sutherland is working with local law enforcement, fire departments, emergency medical services and emergency management departments to improve responses to emergencies.
Gresham Police Chief Robin Sells is glad he's there.
"Any time you improve protocols and training, it's always a good thing," she said, adding his law enforcement background will "bring to the table a different perspective.
"Gresham-Barlow has always been mindful and proactive with student safety."
When Sutherland was in Beaverton, someone wanted to visit the school after the person had been banned from the premises. The would-be intruder was carrying a gun. Sutherland quickly worked with Beaverton police, and the person was arrested without any danger to school's staff or students.
"That was a great example of school district and law enforcement collaboration to keep students safe," Sutherland said.
He is emphasizing that staff and visitors must wear their ID badges at all times, and staff is getting additional training on asking visitors to show their badges and what action to take if the visitor is noncompliant.
School shootings grab headlines and worry parents across the country, even though — thankfully — they are a rare occurrence. Sutherland calls them "low frequency, high impact" incidents.
He is polishing up the protocols for "reunification," or reuniting parents with their students if a school has to be evacuated.
Concern is not just about intruders in schools, although that's obviously a top priority. Sutherland also is updating response plans for everything from hazardous chemical releases near a school, to earthquakes and fires.
Sutherland is also concerned about the "softer" threats in schools such as bullying and fighting. Threats often come from students in the schools. These should be taken seriously and other students should feel comfortable telling an adult if they hear about a threat.
"Its important to create an environment where the students and staff know how to report something and then bring wraparound services to mitigate the situation, and then you will not be in a position to have to do response and recovery," he said.