School district receives state safety grant

By Brandi Makuski

Stevens Point is one of 20 school districts across the state to receive a portion of $1.4 million in grants being dispersed for building safety improvements.

Attorney General Brad Schimel announced on Wednesday the Stevens Point Area Public School District had received the largest grant from the Department of Justice—just under $280,000.

The grant was made available by Gov. Scott Walker in February, according to Superintendent Craig Gerlach, and was “put together very quickly” following active shooter events in other parts of the country.

District officials applied for the maximum amount available, $30,000 per school, according to Brian Casey, director of technology, totaling $279,827.

“We have two systems that are very outdated and antiquated, and that would be our phone system and our video surveillance system. We’re no longer able to get a web-based interface on that,” Casey said.

The new video system would allow staff or law enforcement to gain quick access, and includes recognition software, he said.

Other plans include new handheld radios for staff—“Staff tells us those are indispensable,” Casey said—installing new PA speakers in schools, and installing video surveillance at the former Jackson Elementary School for the first time. Jackson serves as a home for the Point of Discovery charter school but had been vacant for several years prior, and was not included when other district buildings had systems upgraded.

Sheriff Mike Lukas said he has worked with eight districts across the county to improve security, and pointed to last year’s false alarm at Ben Franklin Jr. High as “a major wake-up call” to how outdated the district’s security systems actually were.

In February 2017, law enforcement responded to the school with heavy force after a panic alarm was activated there. As students exacuated the building amidst inaccurate reports of gunshots in the building, officers took over an hour to physically clear the building.

That time would have been reduced to minutes had security been more modern, Lukas said, preventing the spread of panic.

Lukas said students had taken to social media quickly after the alarm, reporting “men with guns” inside the school. An updated security system would have allowed officers to tap into the video system remotely before entering.

“Those ‘men with guns’ were officers; they were us,” he said. “You don’t want officers rushing into a building where it’s not an active shooter situation specifically because of that.”

New video surveillance will be limited largely to hallways, entrance/exit areas, and other gathering spaces such as libraries, gymnasiums, and lunchrooms, but will not be installed in classrooms, locker rooms or bathrooms, Casey said.

Gerlach said the grant does help move the district in the right direction, but it’s a very small piece of what the district actually needs for security improvements, which is estimated at closer to $5 million.

“It’s a lot of money and we’re grateful, but it’s a drop in the bucket in terms of what we need,” Gerlach said, referencing the potential fall referendum asking voters to increase the levy. “Unfortunately without an increase in revenue, we’re going to be in a position to make some hard decisions, pitting [security upgrades] against programs.”

Previous upgrades to district buildings included the installation of safety film on windows and doors, and intercom systems requiring visitors to be buzzed into buildings.