Picture today’s Country Day campus: mostly walled and gated through the lower and middle school but unfenced in the high school — nothing separating the inside from the outside.
An open area.
Now imagine the school fully enclosed.
That will likely one day be reality — although it could be years before any construction happens. According to head of school Lee Thomsen, enclosing the campus is part of the school’s long-term Campus Master Plan, but full enclosure is just one big change at the end of a list of interim steps to improve campus security.
Since a visit last fall by Knowledge Saves Lives (KSL), a group specializing in campus safety training, the school’s administrative team (comprised of faculty from departments across the lower, middle and high school) has been using KSL’s recommendations to revamp school security policy.
Heeding KSL’s advice, the administrative team implemented several new safety regulations, which were sent out via the Jan. 18 Friday email.
From now on, the kindergarten playground gate will remain closed unless used as an emergency exit; only the lower school gates will be used during lower school drop-off; doors to the lower school building outside the gate will remain locked when the reception desk is unstaffed; and identification badges will be worn by employees at all times.
A Jan. 29 poll of 114 high school students showed 89 supported the changes, while 25 opposed at least one of them.
The change garnering the most disapproval was the identification badges, which employees are supposed to wear on campus.
Several students, such as sophomore Erin Wilson, called them “pointless.”
“We all know who the teachers are,” Wilson said. “I don’t have a major thing against (the change), but I just don’t see the need.”
Some students, however, had deeper objections to the rule.
“(The ID cards) add a degree of separation,” sophomore Nate Leavy said. “Especially as a lifer, I feel like I know these teachers on a personal level — it’s such a small school that teachers like (first-grade teacher Sue) Goodwin still remember my name when we bump into each other, even after nine years.
“Name tags just seem impersonal to me.”
But both history teacher Sue Nellis and Latin teacher Jane Batarseh said they considered the badges useful, especially given Country Day’s physically open campus.
According to Nellis, teacher identification had already been discussed before KSL’s visit for that very reason.
“A nice thing about this campus is that it’s open, but it can also invite some problems,” Nellis said.
Batarseh agreed, adding that the badges are a “sad necessity” due to the rise in school shootings.
“(The need for badges) is a sign of our hypervigilant and fearful society,” she said.
Batarseh added that identification is useful in dangerous situations because students or visitors needing help could find a lanyard-wearing teacher easily.
“The downside, though, is someone coming on campus — a shooter — and seeing a person of authority and saying, ‘I’ll kill it,’” she said.
Meanwhile, Nellis said her only issue with the ID is that it’s easy to forget, as she did on the day of history finals.
“It didn’t even occur to me to wear it,” she said. “(But) it’s something new, and all of us have been around for a while, so it’s something that we just have to get used to.”
Nellis also referenced the number of schools with higher security compared to Country Day.
“It’s not a surprise that we’re changing (to match them),” she said.
In fact, the administrative team is discussing even more changes to improve security; the current focus is on fixing gates and issuing visitor badges.
Country Day’s wooden gates have gaps, allowing hands to slip through and open the gate. Consequently, making gates in the middle and lower school less penetrable is likely this summer’s project, according to Thomsen.
“We have a 5-foot high wall with gates that are aesthetically pleasing and create some sense of separation, but they’ve always been the way they are,” he said. “We’re exploring ways to modify the gates so you can’t just open it over or through the gaps from the outside.”
Thomsen said the team has discussed filling the gaps with plexiglass or more wood, but a decision hasn’t been reached.
As for improving walls — found in both the lower and middle school — next to the gates, Thomsen said he doesn’t plan on adding height.
“The truth is that no matter if the walls are 5 feet high or 8 feet high, if someone really wants to go over the wall, they’ll do it,” he said.
The other change that’s in progress is providing identification for all visitors, much like identification for teachers.
“With parents and visitors, we are trying to both create and enforce a visitor policy so that visitors on campus come to an office to get a sticker or visitor badge,” Thomsen said. “The challenge is that we have a longstanding culture of not having that happen, and also, parts of the campus are open, so the practicality of enforcing (the policy) is hard at this point.”
Other plans include creating clearer signage to steer traffic to the main office — so that visitors check in at one location — and creating a more “visually obvious” central entrance to the school, according to Thomsen.
Beyond these goals, there’s the long-term plan to enclose the campus with a wall or fence.
“We have worked with architects to draw up plans to enclose the high school, but we haven’t yet seen designs that we are satisfied with,” Thomsen said.
Although Thomsen said the school will “enclose the campus more than it is now” in the next five to 10 years, he couldn’t give a specific timeline due to concentrating on other projects.
“This year, we chose to do some significant upgrades to the network to provide better internet access and speed across the campus,” he said. “When it comes to enclosing the campus, that’s a project that has to be selected nearly eight to 10 months in advance in order to go through the permitting process and all the red tape with the city.
“It will be at least another summer before we would build (walls or fences).”
While most students supported the recent security changes, approval for enclosing the campus was slightly lower.
In the Jan. 29 poll, 68 students said they wanted an enclosed campus, 34 were opposed, and 12 were noncommittal.
A concern of those against enclosure was that the campus would be less open and welcoming.
“Country Day (now) seems like part of the neighborhood around it,” Leavy said. “Without a firm divider, it’s just part of the community.”
A wall or fence, however, would change that feeling.
Freshman Nihal Gulati, who previously went to Winston Churchill Middle School, said he chose Country Day because it felt like a “friendly sort of school.”
Winston Churchill is mostly enclosed, according to Gulati, and in his poll, he wrote that Country Day’s campus wouldn’t seem as “open and nice” if walled off.
Furthermore, he said, most high schools he’s seen are open, so Country Day shouldn’t change.
Gulati also mentioned the size of Country Day compared to other schools.
“Most high schools are pretty big, and so having a fence around such a small campus would be weird,” he said.
Still, a sizeable chunk of high schoolers want an enclosed campus, with many citing safety concerns in the poll.
Senior Josh Friedman said he supported enclosure not only due to safety but also because he thinks the school needs to become fully open or closed.
“The campus is pretty open physically, but the school isn’t technically an open campus (regarding its policies for students),” he said. “It’s two conflicting views that should be fixed.”
Ultimately, having or not having a fence is a choice between safety and freedom, Friedman added.
“But if the administration wants to really push ahead with making the campus safe, fully enclosing the campus and officially saying whether the campus is closed or open is a step in the right direction,” he said.
Thomsen admitted that because of the school’s traditionally open design, moving forward with an enclosure plan has been difficult.
“A lot of this is a culture you have established over time, and then there’s the culture you wish to establish,” he said. “With open versus enclosed, a good thing about this campus is that it’s airy and open. Would you lose this feeling by having walls?”
Another factor, he added, is cost.
“To simply throw up a fence could cost between $150,000 and $200,000,” Thomsen said.
“However, if the school wants to do it right, that means a thorough redesign of the area between the administration building and the Matthews Library to build a more attractive and visually obvious main entrance.”
Thomsen said the latter project’s price could reach $500,000.
“This raises the question, do we want to spend half a million dollars on the exterior, or could we use those dollars to make changes or additions to existing spaces on campus?” he said.
According to Thomsen, the biggest challenge lies in creating physical safety while avoiding the feel — or look — of a prison.
“(Ultimately), with any change, the aim is to take appropriate steps to create an environment where we can better know who is on campus and who isn’t, who people are, without making it feel like a fortress,” he said.
—By Mohini Rye
Originally published in the Feb. 12 edition of the Octagon.