Increasing Security at an Out-of-Control KC High School

When fires broke out April 8 at Southeast High School, none of the 32 security cameras was working -- and students knew that.

Despite frequent fires and other criminal problems, the cameras apparently had not worked in a couple of years.

"The system is antiquated (analog), and parts cannot be replaced," according to a Kansas City School District memo obtained by The Kansas City Star. "What is needed is a new system."

Making matters worse, three of the school's five administrators were away that day to attend training sessions, according to the memo from Deputy Superintendent Gwen Cooke.

On April 8, students at the school at 3500 E. Meyer Blvd. endured four intentionally set fires, several fights, the arrests of five students, wind-blown pepper spray, two forced evacuations and one routine evacuation before administrators called off classes for the day. The next week, two fires were set in two days.

Since then, the district has installed two video cameras at rest room entrances where some of the fires were set, the memo said. And students can no longer use rest rooms during class time -- only between classes.

In addition, a new door system was installed, the offices of the four vice principals were moved from a central location to areas throughout the building, and students were banned from some stairwells in the sprawling high school.

Cooke said that to prevent unneeded evacuations for small fires and false alarms, the Fire Department would wait two minutes before dispatching firefighters. That would give school administrators time to determine whether there was a fire and whether on-duty police or security officers could extinguish it.

Police have frequently been called to the school in recent years.

A Kansas City Police Department report noting each time officers responded to the school between January 2000 and March 2005 runs 30 pages. Most pages list 29 incidents.

During that period, officers answered 37 calls reporting fires or bomb threats, including 12 last year.

In addition, 58 assaults and four sexual offenses were reported. Two rapes have been reported this school year.

Superintendent Bernard Taylor offered no explanation as to why the district did not put up new security cameras sooner.

"It happened," Taylor said. "The goal is to make sure it does not happen again."

The school's principal, Teresia Gilyard, referred questions to the district's public information office. District administrators declined to comment further, saying that the Cooke memorandum was given to school board members at a closed session and that they could not discuss it.

Board member Marilyn Simmons, whose daughter graduated from Southeast last year, said many students knew the security cameras didn't work.

Earie Shields, whose granddaughter attends Southeast, said recent problems at the school had only confirmed her decision to enroll her granddaughter, Cheree Hill, in a charter school next year. She said that Southeast's staff was qualified but that too many students "aren't there to learn."

Hill was treated by paramedics April 8 after wind-blown pepper spray caused an asthma attack. Hill, who works in the office, said she and other students knew the security system wasn't working but realized now that the cameras were being monitored.

She praised the faculty and security for the steps they had taken.

"The students are more involved with security," she said.

She concurs with her grandmother about transferring, because she thinks she will get a better education at another school.

"Every school has its faults," she said. "Southeast is a good school. We just have a few bad apples that will do anything to act like a fool."