SWEET HOME — Hawthorne Elementary School's old front office sat away from the windows. It was possible for someone to walk into the school unseen — and, occasionally, it happened.
"There was not one person who had a visual to the parking lot. We had zero visibility," said Lindsay Walker, the head office secretary. "We did have parents in our building we didn't know were in our building."
Those undiscovered visitors never ended up putting students in danger, Hawthorne staff members stressed. But safety is a key concern for all Sweet Home schools, and that starts with knowing who's in your building and why.
To that end, when voters approved a $4 million bond measure last May that brought in an additional $4 million in matching funds from the state, they asked the Sweet Home School District to use some of that cash to improve security at the schools.
Hawthorne is the first Sweet Home elementary school to receive that upgrade. The district built a new front entrance during the summer, giving direct visual access from the front office and providing an internal vestibule to act as a holding area while office staff members talk with visitors.
Foster, Holley and Sweet Home Junior High schools are scheduled for similar entrance remodels starting next summer.
Mass shootings at schools in other parts of the country have prompted security upgrades at schools throughout the mid-valley, as educators scramble for ways to make families, staff and visitors feel more safe.
In addition to buzz-in entryways, schools are installing fences, putting up cameras, adding special locks to internal doors, and upgrading intercoms and other communication systems. They're also doubling down on drills and training so students and families know what to do in case someone at the building turns violent.
"We did a lot of research in school designs for our junior high project," Superintendent Tom Yahraes said. "All the new schools we looked at have safety vestibules and door locking mechanisms. This has become the expectation for school entrances and security.
"While we do lose some community feel when we have vestibules and locking mechanisms, for Hawthorne, adding larger windows allows for more transparency and a more inviting feeling," he went on. "The timber accent at the entrance also gives a nod to our great Sweet Home timber traditions."
At Hawthorne, the bones of the new entrance are complete. Crews are spending the next few days installing buzz-in door locks, key card entry systems, cameras and monitors to finish the safety system.
When everything is done, a visitor to Hawthorne coming to the front door after school has started will press an outside button to signal for entrance.
Once inside, the visitor will be in a closed-off vestibule area between the front office and the main part of the school. The person will stop at the front office window to check in. Office staff members can then press another button to let the visitor through a second set of doors into the school itself.
Children already inside the building who need to come to the office for a Band-aid or to drop off lunch money have their own separate window, past the vestibule, which opens to the hallway. A secretary there can work with them while the other secretary talks with parents and visitors at the vestibule window.
Cameras will cover the building and grounds, beaming their photos to a monitor in the main office.
Walker spent part of Wednesday morning talking with Dale Martin, a member of the Sweet Home maintenance department, about the best placement for four new buttons inside the main office.
One button will lock the front door, which will happen at 8 a.m. sharp, once school starts. Another will open the vestibule door to the main school. Another will open a door from the office to the vestibule. The fourth button will be an overall lockout button, shutting down all access to the school from the outside.
Eventually, staff said the school plans to add an outdoor warning system with noise and flashing lights so children on the playground will be alerted to come back to the building immediately if there should be a threat outdoors.
District long-term maintenance funds paid for the upgrades. The estimated cost is $40,000.
Work isn't finished but should be in a few days, Walker said.
"We're so proud," she said. "We feel really safe and secure."
Hawthorne also received some added safety features this year through a seismic upgrade grant from Oregon Infrastructure Finance Authority. That paid for a new roof, which is "tied" to the foundation through shear walls inside and outside the building, and also covered new windows across the front of the building.
The windows let in much more natural light, which gives the reconstructed office an airy and inviting feel, Principal Barbi Riggs said. The new floor plan of the front office puts her own office right next to the windows, allowing her to see both the front entrance and the secretary's work area, and to communicate with anyone who comes into the front office.
The new office floor plan also allows Hawthorne its own small sickroom, which is a safety benefit of its own because it can better isolate students, Riggs said. In previous years, students who weren't feeling well made do with a "room" partitioned off from the library by bookshelves.
"It was just not very pleasant," she said. "Now, we have real walls."
Yahraes said community reactions so far have favored the changes.
"We've had more positive hits on our Facebook page than anything we have done thus far," he said.