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Schools continue to make security updates following Newtown shooting

Three weeks after the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School that claimed 26 lives, area educators are continuing conversations about how to improve security, as well as reinforce a sense of safety, in their schools.

Some districts have made or are working toward concrete changes, such as installing buzzer systems and new security cameras. Most area districts, however, are in the process of reviewing safety procedures and holding meetings with law enforcement and school officials to discuss how to tweak policies.

“Tragedy causes us to go back and revisit the things that we have in place and make sure that they are as effective as we hope that they’ll be,” said Prospect Mountain Superintendent Robert Cullison.

In the days following the shooting, Concord School District made sure all the doors except the front door were locked in each school at all times, said Matt Cashman, director of facilities and planning. The district is also in the process of adding buzzers and security cameras at the front door of the high school, Beaver Meadow School and Broken Ground School, Cashman said. The middle school and three elementary schools already have that technology.

Before the shooting, the district held weekly meetings of an emergency action team at the high school and a monthly meeting with middle and elementary school principals, Cashman said. Those meetings will continue.

“I just feel we are really trying to stay ahead of the curve and be proactive,” he said.

The Bow School District is looking at prices for installing buzzer systems at the front door of all of its schools, said Superintendent Dean Cascadden. In the days after the shooting, district officials came up with short- and long-term lists of security improvements, from not leaving doors propped open to improving building infrastructure.

The district frequently reviews safety procedures and has talked about updating security at doors for years, Cascadden said. Tragedy, however, prompts swifter action.

“I think what happened is it didn’t change fundamentally what we were doing, it kind of gave us more urgency to do the things we’ve been doing better,” he said.

In SAU 53, both the Allenstown and Deerfield school districts are looking to appropriate funds in the next budget for armed school resource officers, something the Concord, Hillsboro-Deering and Merrimack Valley school districts already have. Those officers work jointly with the district and the police department and often travel between middle and high schools, providing a constant security presence.

The Nashua School District has fast-tracked several security improvements slated to begin this summer as part of $1.8 million security overhaul. Those two updates include locking down main entrances to every school with buzzer systems and updating locks on every classroom door so they can be locked from the inside, said Superintendent Mark Conrad.

Other districts made smaller immediate changes. In Hopkinton, for example, students and visitors to the middle/high school can no longer enter through the back door after 8:10 a.m. The district also did an audit of protocols and held a training session on emergency response protocols with the state on Friday, said Superintendent Steven Chamberlin.

Chamberlin, who served as chairman of the district’s safety and security committee for more than a decade, said although making concrete security changes is important, building a safer school has just as much to do with strengthening relationships. Students need to feel comfortable sharing problems with teachers and administrators, he said.

“If someone is mentally ill or mentally unstable, if there’s someone they can reach out to for support, to me that’s a successful school,” Chamberlin said.

Bishop Brady High School principal Trevor Bonat also takes a longer view on preventing similar tragedies from happening. He has a more personal connection to the shooting – his nephew James Mattioli was one of the first-graders killed.

“As a principal of a school you can only imagine we look immediately to if we’re doing everything we can to make our students safe,” he said.

The school did a review of its security procedures and determined they are sound, so concrete security changes have not been made. The school has a visitor check-in procedure and does practice drills in compliance with state requirements. Bishop Brady does not have a school resource officer, but its assistant principal for students is a retired resource officer.

Preventing future tragedies, however, goes beyond just improving security, Bonat said.

“We both want to be attending to the details of emergency preparedness and keeping our focus on just the grim realities of the world we live in, but also as a Catholic school we exist . . . to produce students that can create a world where this isn’t the case anymore,” he said. “That’s taking the long view, but that’s fundamentally what we exist to try to do.”

Although not every school has made concrete changes in the three weeks since the shooting, every area school contacted by the Monitor said changes are part of a continuing conversation on improving safety.

As of 2009, every school in the state is required to have emergency response plans based on state and national requirements. The state also provides training on seven emergency response actions, such as evacuation, reverse evacuation, and drop, cover and hold. Gregg Champlin, school emergency planning specialist of the state’s Homeland Security and Emergency Management Department, said he’s received a high number of calls from districts looking to have training sessions to review procedures.

Several superintendents emphasized that because of these requirements – the response plans must be updated annually – it is important to assure students and parents that the schools are already safe places.

The week after the shooting, the focus at Merrimack Valley School District was for principals to be in their buildings, making their presence visible to students and parents, Superintendent Mike Martin said. The school board will also likely discuss safety at its Jan. 14 meeting.

The policies already in place took time and effort to construct, and it’s important to give changes the same level of care rather than making knee-jerk changes, Martin said. Instead, Merrimack Valley, like many districts, will get parents and law enforcement officials involved to review and revise procedures, a process that may take time.

“This incident has really hit a nerve in the community, and so we don’t want to start doing some things which some officials come in and tell us later we shouldn’t be doing,” Martin said. “I think our plan is relatively solid, but when you all get unnerved a little bit by an incident like that, I think you sit down and engage people and have a conversation.”

(Kathleen Ronayne can be reached at 369-3309 or
kronayne@cmonitor.com or on Twitter at @kronayne.)

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