Anchorage School District officials prioritize security upgrades at elementary schools

Teachers and staff have ID badges that give them access to a school with a secure vestibule. Visitors must request access from front office staff, who can see visitors through security cameras. (Katie Anastas/Alaska Public Media)

Representatives of the Anchorage School District say increasing security at school entrances is a high priority after a high school student in Uvalde, Texas, killed 19 students and two teachers at an elementary school on Tuesday.

The Anchorage School District began adding secure vestibules to its elementary schools four years ago. The vestibules add additional levels of security at school entrances by requiring visitors to enter through two locked doors. Front office staff can see people outside the front door at all times, either through windows or security cameras.

The district has built secure vestibules at 17 of 61 elementary schools so far. 

“We won’t stop until we’ve done all of our elementary schools,” said Rob Holland, the senior director of maintenance and operations for the district. 

He said he’s hopeful the budget the Legislature passed earlier this month could free up some funds for district security projects.

“As soon as we know that, then we will move swiftly to complete as many of these as we can with that money,” he said. “That way we won’t have to wait until next April and will be able to put even more of these on the next bond.”

Secure vestibules require visitors to go through multiple locked doors and walk through the front office before entering the rest of the school. (Katie Anastas/Alaska Public Media)

A $111 million bond on the Anchorage municipal ballot would have paid for new secure vestibules at 12 schools. That bond failed, but the school board could put another bond on the ballot next year.

In the meantime, the district has other security measures in place. 

Ashley Lally is the district’s director of security and emergency preparedness. She said ASD staff complete an online training every fall, and schools do four drills per year. She said the drills help staff know how to respond to different scenarios and to react accordingly.

“Whether that’s to evacuate the building or to barricade in their classroom, it’s really important that teachers and staff understand they have the authority to make that decision for them and for their students,” she said.

Lally said the district works closely with school resource officers and the Anchorage Police Department. The district notifies the Anchorage Police Department about social media threats, and the department calls nearby schools if someone in the area is considered armed and dangerous.

“So far, for every social media threat we’ve ever had, students have continued to stay in school,” Lally said. “I think a lot of that is because of our strong partnership with our school resource officers. They act very fast and efficiently, and that helps us to be able to make really good decisions.”

In early April, school resource officers safely detained someone with a gun on Bartlett High School property. That same day, APD located and questioned an Eagle River High School student who posted a shooting threat on Snapchat. Police did not find a gun and determined that the threat was unfounded, according to the district.

Lally said parents should talk to kids about healthy coping mechanisms for stress. 

“We are seeing the stressors of the last two years come into our schools,” she said. “I think it’s really important that parents talk to their kids about how everyone navigated the last two years in a different way. And it’s really important to give that grace to everyone we interact with.”

Lally said the district’s Health Services Department is also working to expand mental health resources at every school.

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