One year after Sandy Hook, area schools see tighter security, stricter policies
Pembroke resource officer Angela Bergeron has lunch with third graders at Pembroke Hill School on December 13, 2013. Bergeron stops by at the school to mingle but spends most of her time over at Pembroke Academy.
(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)
Pembroke Hill School keeps a monitor in the main office that streams a feed from four separate locations at the school. While they've had a camera on the main entrance for years, the three other locations are a new addition.
(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)
After lunch, kids line up at the cafeteria door to return to their classrooms at Pembroke Hill School in Pembroke on December 13, 2013.
(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)
School leaders and communities in the Concord area have grappled with questions of security in the year since a gunman forced his way into Sandy Hook Elementary School, killing 20 children and six adults.
“You listen to the news all the time, and the world is changing,” said Matt Cashman, Concord School District’s director of facilities and planning. “I just feel that our primary responsibility, mine is, to ensure safety throughout the district.”
By securing a $25,000 grant from the state Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, Cashman brought the most notable physical change in the area to the high school in the form of a blue light system. Eighty-five blue strobe lights are installed around the campus and will be triggered if students and teachers need to initiate a lockdown. When these bright lights start flashing, students will immediately know that danger is present, even if hallway or cafeteria noise drowns out announcements.
No other school in the state has this type of system, but school leaders across central New Hampshire also say the Newtown, Conn., shooting, which occurred a year ago today, was the impetus to strengthen enforcement of existing policies and add new security tools. The state, too, initiated a series of measures to improve school safety at the direction of Gov. Maggie Hassan.
“It’s always a goal that we’re striving to be more and more prepared for anything that can come our way,” Cashman said.
In Concord, each of the three new elementary schools is already equipped with up-to-date cameras and buzzer systems, but the district added front-entrance cameras – some of which came from the former Walker School – at Beaver Meadow, Broken Ground and Rundlett Middle schools.
Panic buttons that provide a direct line to 911 can also be found at every Concord public school and at Bishop Brady High School. Merrimack Valley’s school board is discussing adding them as well. Hopkinton installed new phones with a direct connection to 911 that shows dispatchers which phone placed the call.
In Bow, administrators found money to add buzz-in systems to all three schools. Visitors must buzz in and identify themselves before someone in the front office, who can see through the front window, grants access. (Concord and several other districts already used these systems.) Sgt. Margaret Lougee, a Bow police officer and the school resource officer, said students now have colored ID badges that make it easier to monitor who can come and go from campus during the day.
Bow also has security teams in each school, which existed before Sandy Hook, that review safety procedures for during and after school. Lougee said when she first heard about the shooting last year, she thought of how similar the Sandy Hook community was to Bow in that it’s a small town where everyone knows each other.
“It really opened up our eyes,” she said. “Luckily for us it hasn’t happened here, but it could and we need to be prepared.”
In most districts, law enforcement officials and school leaders toured the buildings after the shooting to evaluate security. In Deerfield, that walk-through led the school board to find money to add inside locks on most classroom doors. Previously, teachers had to lock doors from the outside before shutting them, Principal Paul Yergeau said. School leaders have also discussed tinting windows and better securing fire doors that block off hallways. Merrimack Valley remodeled the entrance to Salisbury Elementary School, adding an extra layer of doors and moving the front office closer to the entrance.
In the aftermath of the shooting, gun rights and gun control advocates offered a bevy of solutions for keeping schools safe. One idea, championed by the National Rifle Association, was to staff schools with armed police officers. Many area high schools, including Concord, Merrimack Valley and Bow, already had school resource officers.
The idea of adding full-time officers to elementary schools has gained little traction in this area, but the police have increased their presence in some schools. Lougee, the Bow officer, works at all three of Bow’s schools, and officers come through Pembroke Hill Elementary School at least once a week. This helps the students get to know them and see the police as a positive community force, Principal Karen Cloutier said. In Deerfield, a resident-submitted warrant article to add an armed officer failed at last March’s annual meeting.
Aside from these physical changes, school leaders began reinforcing existing rules and encouraging students and teachers to be more vigilant. Most area schools now lock every exterior door once school begins and remind students not to prop open doors or hold them for strangers.
The Pembroke Hill School has long had a strict policy for visitors and parents picking up children, but tightened it even more this year, Cloutier said. Parents who want to enter the building to pick up their child now typically stay outside the enclosed reception area to wait for their child, and any unrecognized individual must show identification. Students who are regularly picked up after school are released one at a time and led to their parents’ cars by school staff, Cloutier said.
“We’ve always been pretty tight with our security when it has to do with kids, but I think that what Newtown did is it heightened our awareness and just really made us think even more about what else could we do,” she said.
Lougee, Bow’s resource officer, said promoting community dialogue is another key to keeping schools safe. She and other school leaders try to create an environment where kids and parents feel comfortable sharing concerns.
“If you hear of something, you’ve got to get that reported, as minimal as it is, you’ve got to report that stuff,” she said.
Likewise, Bishop Brady Principal Trevor Bonat said fostering a school culture of respect is important. Bonat, whose nephew was one of the students killed at Sandy Hook, said students and staff at Bishop Brady strive to treat everyone with dignity.
“For me, that’s the No. 1 when I talk about school prevention, making sure that everybody feels valued and respected,” he said.
After the shooting in Sandy Hook, Hassan also developed a set of initiatives to improve school security that focuses on behaviors and monetary resources, said Steven Temperino, assistant director for New Hampshire’s division of homeland security.
A team of experts worked with homeland security to write an assessment tool that districts can use to identify what their schools do well and to “stimulate conversation” about what else is needed, Temperino said. The state also put out an “effective solutions” document highlighting access control, surveillance and emergency alerting as three key areas.
The state homeland security division is working with local schools on a mapping project that will detail the locations and layouts of the state’s roughly 500 schools as a resource for emergency responders. And the state police have hosted active shooter training focused on school situations.
Financially, $500,000 in emergency management performance grant funding is now available to districts on a matching basis for enhancing school security. (The money for Concord’s blue light system came from this fund.) The division of homeland security hopes to rewrite its strategy to include schools, which would allow for even more funding. Finally, Hassan included money in the budget for the division of homeland security to hire two part-time school protection specialists to work with the state’s one full-time employee in this area.
“I think if Newtown hadn’t happened,” Temperino said, “we wouldn’t have been so focused.”
(Kathleen Ronayne can be reached at 369-3390 or firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @kronayne.)