Missouri county gets new tool to protect schools

Jan. 14--The Clay County Sheriff's Department has a new tool in responding to bad situations in public school buildings -- one they hope they will never use -- a flash drive.

Through a grant, the department is providing fire and law enforcement agencies in the North Kansas City School District a USB flash drive that contains virtual tours of all 31 district school facilities.

The flash drives feature "walk-through" tours designed to increase the preparedness of first responders to a school threat.

Officials said school shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado and at Virginia Tech University highlight the need to make school safety an ongoing issue.

"It is a tool we hope we never have to use," said Capt. Ron Nicola, who leads the Sheriff's Department tactical response team.

The grant from the Mid-America Regional Council through the U.S. Department of Homeland Security allowed the sheriff's department to purchase a camera that records a 360-degree virtual image of all building interiors.

Clay County school resource officers assigned to the schools in the district used the cameras to capture the necessary footage of their schools.

"We now have a more fluid and higher-tech view of school hallways, classrooms and stairwells in each of our buildings," said Jon Brady, the district's safety and security coordinator.

Park Hill School District developed such a detailed database with its law enforcement agencies in 2005.

Marcus Harris, director of security for the Kansas City School District, said the district does not have the virtual images of their school facilities.

However, police have floor plans of all the schools in the department's computer system.

Representatives of the two largest districts in eastern Jackson County -- Lee's Summit and Blue Springs -- said they have not forged a partnership like the one between the Clay County Sheriff's Department and the North Kansas City School District.

Sgt. Brian Wessling, a supervisor responsible for school resource officers in Olathe, said several police agencies offer something similar but may not be as detailed as the Clay County effort.

Clay County officials said the flash drives contain aerial maps, satellite maps and the internal layout of each classroom. Also, they have maps of the buildings' utility lines.

"The obvious asset will be to our tactical response teams," said Deputy Gary Johnson, who works as a school resource officer at Maple Park Middle School and was part of the team that gathered the information.

"If someone barricades themselves in a classroom, we are now able to report where the windows and doors are located. We also can check for blind or hidden spots," he said.

The photos allow users to maneuver the computer mouse to sweep around the room, Johnson said.

The department would eventually photograph similar images for all of the schools in Clay County. They also plan to photograph the county courthouse and other facilities where shootings and hostage situations might occur, Johnson said.

Maj. Jan Zimmerman, commander, of the Shoal Creek Patrol Division, said the technology would enable officers to better respond in emergencies.

"This is an outstanding piece of technology that will benefit our officers in the unlikely event of a rapid-response scenario," Zimmerman said. "They will know what every room looks like without actually having been inside the facility beforehand."

School officials are constantly reviewing and upgrading security measures, she said.

Dennis McCarthy, director of safety and security for the Blue Valley School District, said they do not offer a program like Clay County's, but the district has surveillance cameras at all of their facilities.

"But from a law enforcement standpoint, this is great," McCarthy said.

"I am all for cameras and communications, but my belief is we need to spend time preventing violence from occurring."

The Star's Mike Sherry and Joe Robertson contributed to this report. To reach Glenn E. Rice, call 816-234-5908 or send e-mail to grice@kcstar.com.

(Kansas City Star (MO) (KRT) -- 01/15/08)

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