Secure vestibules are being installed at three Dothan school campuses, and will soon be a feature at every school in the district.
The feature is part of an aggressive school safety plan created by the Dothan Police Department in 2018 called the School Protection and Response Initiative.
In the same year, the Dothan City Commission made school security a top priority after several school shootings, including the Parkland, Florida, incident. The police department was tasked with developing a comprehensive plan in partnership with Dothan City Schools.
The plan is a multifaceted approach to ensuring safety in schools that includes threat assessments, physical protective barriers, school protection officers and plans for reporting, communication, and action in potentially dangerous situations.
“One of the recommendations across the board was some sort of secure vestibule to be able to protect the entryways better,” Police Chief Steve Parrish said. “I’m excited to see that the school board is acting upon those recommendations because they will definitely provide better security.”
Dothan Preparatory Academy, Dothan High School and the new Dothan Early Education Center at the old Honeysuckle building are getting the security upgrades first as part of the construction packages currently being executed at each of the facilities.
Now, visitors will have to be buzzed in to get through the front doors to gain access to a secure foyer behind a wall with bullet-resistant drywall and another set of locked doors with bulletproof glass.
Depending on the school, there will be at least one window also made with bulletproof glass and a receptionist. Dothan Prep will feature two windows: one for the receptionist and another for principal Darius McKay’s secretary.
“The most important thing to me is to make sure kids are safe,” McKay said. “So that creates a safety net for any type of potential issue…”
The windows have a small compartment that can be used to accept money, keys, and notes.
Any visitor must present identification to be screened with the Raptor school security system, which screens for sex offenders, alerts staff of custody violations, and provides district-wide reporting.
After visitors and their statement of business are verified, they may be allowed through the second set of locked doors, if deemed necessary.
“It’s a major obstacle for intruders to achieve what they’re trying to achieve,” McKay added.
All visitors are expected to go through the main entrance. All other entrances are equipped with automatic door-locking mechanisms that will latch at pre-determined times. There are also security cameras installed outside to view entryways, parking lots and loading areas.
“When schools were first built, they were built open and welcoming to the community,” Director of Safety, Security and Attendance of Dothan City Schools Scott Faulk said. “In recent times and recent events, it’s sad to say we’ve had to make changes.”
Other elements of the SPRI include the first-of-its-kind program to hire school protection officers, which are part-time fully-trained police officers tasked with patrolling school buildings.
Ten SPOs have been hired and Parrish said the department is in the process to hire an additional 10 so each facility related to the school can have an officer on site. The SPOs are in addition to the eight school resource officers stationed inside several campuses.
Three will be housed at the Dothan Prep site. McKay said one officer will be tasked with patrolling the front hallway regularly.
“This is the way to go. This is the future,” Parrish said. “We don’t want schools to look like - some have referred to them as detention centers with fences… But, the reality is we live in a day and time where we have to look at this through a different set of glasses.”
The plan has other components that are planned to be implemented over the next 12 to 14 months.
“Those things include response drills for active shooter situations involving both administration and students,” Parrish said. “Things such as early warning and intelligence-gathering to medical triage in the event an emergency does occur. The Dothan Fire Department and local ambulances will participate as well. So not only are we going to have a safety program in place, we’re going to practice it.”
The program engineered in Dothan has already become a model and template for other systems in the state to follow such as Hartselle, where the police department is implementing SPOs for its local school district, and other municipalities.
Parrish said the plan is due to a strong community partnership between the city commission, Dothan PD, and the school system.
“The relationship between the two is stronger than I’ve ever seen it before and Dr. (Phyllis) Edwards and her team are committed to protecting our students, our teachers, and making the parents comfortable that their kids are safe while attending public school,” he said.
Additionally, Faulk said officials will also be more stringent on its policy to completely lock down schools during drills – nobody will be allowed in or out of the building during that time. They would also ask parents to not try to check their children out during dangerous situations like inclement weather.
“Let’s take for instance, tornadoes, which are prevalent in this area… that city alarm goes off. That city alarm lets us know our students need to be in their stations or in their areas designated for bad weather,” Faulk said. “We don’t release them until we are cleared as a whole system and then we wait for either the national weather service to contact our area to clear us or we wait to hear for the EMA (Emergency Management Agency).”
Employees have key fobs in their possession to gain access to the building.