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A question of security

Ripple Effect is a partnership between the Mail Tribune and KTVL taking an in-depth look at education in the Rogue Valley. Tune in to KTVL News 10’s 6 p.m. Monday broadcast to see why some students are missing from distance learning.

Security upgrades built into Ashland High School’s redesign, funded by a $129.2 million bond approved by voters in 2018, are being scrutinized by a former school board member who describes some of the safety features as “jail-like” and “completely inappropriate for Ashland High School, even if well-intentioned.”

Ashland High is one of five schools in the district that will be renovated for improvements in, among other things, campus security, air quality, operational efficiency and tech infrastructure between 2019 and October of 2022. Seismic upgrades will also be a priority. Some of the work has already begun — Ashland Middle School, for instance, has been a construction site since a groundbreaking ceremony last October.

Upgrades to the high school — the humanities and science buildings will be receiving most of the attention — are past the design phase and will soon be moving on to bidding and permitting before construction, which is scheduled to begin in May.

Former school board member John Williams, who served on the board for six years before stepping down in 2017, says some of the security updates to the high school’s humanities and science buildings are unnecessary given Ashland’s low-crime rate, and are potentially harmful. He points to the metal mesh-like walls, “fenced hallways,” and transparent polycarbonate screening.

Williams isn’t sure the designs will make the school safer, as intended, and believes that besides sending the wrong message the security features could detract from students’ education.

“I come at the design of schools from the standpoint that I think is shared universally with national organizations of principals and school counselors and teacher associations, that there needs to be a balance between basic security precautions, smart security precautions and having a conducive environment for learning,” Williams said. “Kids need to feel safe, but they also need to feel happy and trusting and collaborative. And so there’s a balance that we need to find in designing schools.”

Williams says the designs don’t conform to current best practices when it comes to school designs, and he cites reports by Everytown Research & Policy and the National Association of School Psychologists, among other organizations.

According to a report by the NASP titled “Rethinking School Safety: Communities and Schools Working Together,” safety and learning go hand-in-hand, and students who do not feel safe at school will struggle to reach their potential. However, the report continues, “Our schools must not resemble fortresses. We cannot barricade against all possible harm; trying to do so is counterproductive to maintaining a healthy learning environment and is an ineffective use of resources. Excessive building security (e.g., metal detectors, armed guards) can actually decrease students’ sense of safety and does not necessarily guarantee protection.”

Ashland Superintendent Samuel Bogdanove said the translucent polycarbonate cladding will protect students and staff if an earthquake strikes, and by including the red-tinted fencing on portions of the science and humanities buildings the district is merely holding up its end of the bargain considering the language of the bond proposal.

Renovations at Helman Elementary are expected to be completed by December of this year; construction at the middle school, John Muir Outdoor School, AHS and Walker Elementary is expected to wrap up during the summer of 2022.

Steve Mitzel, the bond executive officer and Ashland’s director of information technology, said voters passed a bond that targeted safety, security and a seismic retrofit with ADA upgrades, and that’s what they’ll get. The district also landed a $2.5 million grant through the state of Oregon that will cover some of the costs.

The polycarbonate screening may look like an enormous bank-teller window shielding students from the outside world, but it actually serves a more mundane purpose, Mitzel said. Short of leveling the buildings and starting over, which wasn’t an option, the screens were the best way to protect students and AHS staff from earthquake damage.

“We have a lot of opinions about the appearance of this,” Mitzel said, pointing at a screen, “but for what it’s worth everything you see in (the diagrams) is really about the seismic retrofit. We’re not designing this to have a certain appearance or to not have a certain appearance. It’s functional.”

Their purpose, he said, is to “capture” the buildings’ four-foot stem walls should they fail during an earthquake. Also included in the design are seismic adaptive bracings.

“It’s really not about the aesthetics,” Mitzel said. “Of course, we could incorporate that as best we can, but we have to meet goal number one, which is the safety and security of the people in that building, and the seismic retrofit that we also received a grant for, by the way.

“Everything comes back to the seismic adaptability of this building. We’re trying to get it to a place where it’s safe and secure for kids to occupy — not just even safe and secure during an event but hopefully safe and secure after an event.”

The most prominent security feature in the high school redesign is the red fence-like mesh “cladding” that will be installed along the side of the humanities and science buildings. Air and light can pass through, but not people. That was an important design element, Mitzel said, because currently the high school’s “extremely open” campus gets plenty of foot traffic, and not all of it from students on their way to class. Transients, members of the community looking to cut across on their way home or downtown, and even deer are free to roam the school’s walkways and often do.

Williams says the cladding, which will cut off portions of a lawn, is over the top. There’s no way to predict with absolute certainty when and if a violent tragedy will occur on an Ashland campus, he said, but those tragedies are still very rare “in places like Ashland, which do not have rampant gang violence all around the school.” Which is why he believes the school’s design should be data-driven rather than reactionary.

The cladding, he said, is “not only going to radically affect the environment at the school but it’s going to affect the way the school looks and feel in the community as well.”

The district’s position is that the cladding and an auto-lock feature that will be installed are the best ways for the school to control access. Bogdanove said that when an off-campus “incident” occurs near the high school, like one he said that put students on alert last school year, the school will be able to keep students and staffers safer by securing access points.

“We’re not blocking off the entire campus — we’re a long ways from that,” Mitzel said. “That might be an eventuality. But at this point we’re just trying to block off some of the high-traffic breezeway.”

Currently, he said, it’s not uncommon to see somebody strolling through campus toting an armload of groceries.

“We’ve had a lot of activity off hours on our campuses,” Mitzel said, “and this would also help just to reduce a little bit of that.”

Details of the district’s redesigns, including timelines, photos, updates and schematics, are available at hmkco.org/ashlandbond.

Joe Zavala can be reached at 541-821-0829 or jzavala@rosebudmedia.com.

An artist rendering shows what Ashland High School's humanities building will look like from the vantage point of an interior breezeway. The red "cladding" will make it harder for community members to cut across campus. (photo courtesy of HMK Architects)