Security upgrades go live in Utica schools
Shelby Township — Inside classrooms of Duncan Elementary School on the first day of school on Tuesday, students searched for new desks and teachers spoke of lessons to come.
In the school's hallways and entryways, newly installed rows of security cameras hung above the heads of law enforcement officials and school leaders in Utica Community Schools as they touted their efforts to keep children and school staff safe through new security measures.
Along with the cameras, Duncan Elementary employees, students and visitors were greeted Tuesday by a new set of doors at the school's front main entryway, all a part of securing the building ahead of any potential school threat.
This summer, the district, which is Michigan's second-largest with 27,000 students across 36 schools and 66 square miles, installed security upgrades through a $155 million bond issue approved by voters in November.
"We want to reassure parents that as we open today, your children are safe," superintendent Christine Johns said on Tuesday. "As the result of the bond, this past summer, we had a lot of work done in the district, about $20 million in projects."
The new entryway requires visitors to press a button to request entry and then do so again once they are inside a vestibule with another set of doorways leading to the main office.
The school security cameras are in public spaces of the schools, not classrooms, Johns said. All seven junior high schools and four high schools have camera systems and work will continue to install cameras inside all elementary schools through next summer, Johns said.
Monitoring those cameras are school resource officers from Shelby Township and Sterling Heights police departments who are inside the schools full-time as well as school security officers who work directly for the district.
Macomb County law enforcement will have access to the cameras in the event of a school emergency. Utica Community Schools provides Macomb County’s Communications and Technology Center, known as COMTEC, direct access to video cameras inside and outside of classroom buildings in an effort to add an extra layer of safety.
In the event of an emergency in either district, employees at COMTEC, which includes the sheriff’s office dispatch, can immediately access live feeds of cameras in public areas of schools such as hallways, exterior doors, large rooms such as libraries and outside views along nearby roads and parking lots.
Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel said educators should focus on education while law enforcement and government focus on protecting people in schools.
"It shouldn't be incumbent on the schools and the teachers to figure this out," Hackel said. "This bond, people supporting it here, they understand the importance of contributing to try to keep kids safe."
School resource officers were implemented at all district high schools and security specialists were added at elementary and junior high schools, school officials said.
Mark Coil, Shelby Township's deputy chief, said the cameras are an invaluable asset to fight crime.
"It deters people. They understand there are here," Coil said. "This isn't Big Brother watching you. This is bonafide emergencies. You have an emergency, and we can access it in real-time. That intel-driven component as we've seen in some of these other shootings is critical to our success in apprehension of these people."
Coil's wife, Sharon, is the principal of the school.
"These people rely on us," Coil said of the school staff. "We will leave the education to them. And you leave the security to us. I think that's a great relationship."
School resource officers working in the district are armed while school security officers are not. Coil said he would like all officers working in the schools to be armed.
"I am a firm believer that the greatest way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun," Coil said. "It's been shown that people aren't going to attack places that they know that are fortified."
Parent Nathan Bills, who has five children in the district, came to the school on Tuesday to see the security upgrades across the district. Bills thanked the district and police for safeguarding the schools.
"It's so reassuring, as you know as a parent, to actually feel a peace of mind in your heart," Bills said, "and in your spirit when you put your kids on the school bus and send them off to school each day, knowing that they are going to be protected and taken care of."
Across the state districts and schools have been spending grant money and bond dollars this summer to improve security inside and outside of buildings.
Michigan State Police officials say 135 public school districts, 66 non-public schools, 20 public charter schools and nine intermediate school districts received $25 million in school safety grants to improve the campus safety and security with technology and equipment.
Districts have until June to spend the money.