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Pembroke Academy to construct new ‘safety hallway’ at front entrance

Security issues and ruminations on the frailty of human existence aren’t quite your typical high school graduation speech fare – but to Pembroke Academy Headmaster Michael Reardon, it only made sense. Trying to navigate the world today is somewhat “akin to walking in a minefield,” he told seniors, and with such a looming potential for turmoil – environmental, medical, man-made or otherwise – he said, “It’s surprising we don’t all suffer from a permanent form of PTSD.”

So why such a heavy speech? Well, for one, “he watches the news.” He wanted the young adults to know what they’re getting into, he later explained.

But as Reardon urged new graduates to use caution as they proceed to the world beyond Pembroke Academy, he also used his June 14 commencement speech to point out one manifestation of this caution closer to home: This summer, he said, the high school is embarking on a $100,000 renovation to increase security at its front doors.

“There’s only one reason that’s happening: We as a community feel vulnerable to the same pressures and threats that engulf the rest of our planet,” Reardon told the crowd. “The possibility that one day a random lunatic could appear on our school’s doorstep with a malicious intent is just that – a possibility, neither probable nor remote.”

Those renovations began this week, and they’re expected to wrap up by the second or third week in August, Maintenance Director Jonathan Burnham said. This isn’t necessarily anything new for Pembroke, just for the high school – the renovations will mirror changes that have already been implemented at other schools throughout the district, Burnham said.

As Burnham and school board Chairman Thomas Serafin described it, visitors seeking to enter the building during the school day will only be able to do so after being buzzed in from outside and then checking in at the front office. Those outside of the front doors will be able to communicate via an intercom with a receptionist or another staff member inside, Burnham said.

Before, Serafin said, all of the doors were open during the day, and these changes are meant to create a kind of “safety hallway” as a buffer between the exterior of the building and the larger corridor inside.

This shouldn’t affect students arriving at or leaving school as part of their normal routine, the officials said, as the doors will only be locked during school hours – nor will the new entrance procedure be in place during large-scale events held at the school.

Plans for this most recent round of Pembroke’s security renovations have been in the works for several months, the officials said, and Serafin said the board received no objections during school board meetings where the issue was discussed.

Reardon, speaking after the graduation ceremony, said the decision to implement new security procedures – and those procedures’ potential effects on students’ learning environments – isn’t taken lightly.

“I remember 15 years ago when we were debating whether or not we should even have walkie-talkies because we thought that changes the environment,” he said. “So yeah, I think you worry about all of that stuff, because if it becomes too prominent, kids start saying, ‘What’s the deal here?’ And I think it changes their attitude, even subtly.”

With that in mind, he said, this seemed like a reasonable step.

“On the one hand, putting metal detectors out here is ridiculous at this point, given where we are – but doing this type of thing, it’s not,” Reardon said. “We put in panic buttons a year or two ago, so you take those little steps and try not to be obtrusive.”

The school doesn’t have metal detectors and doesn’t search students’ bags upon entrance, Serafin said, and at this point has no plans to install such procedures. Serafin also stressed the importance of a minimally invasive approach.

“At this point, I believe that the investments we’re making and changes we’re making are all to create a safer environment,” he said, “not at all to infringe on personal space and personal belongings.”

Reardon and Serafin also stressed the importance of other measures short of security changes – programs to encourage civility, for example – that also play an important role in giving students a sense of security.

“If you do those things, you substantially limit the threat from inside the building, so kids don’t feel isolated, that kind of stuff,” Reardon said. “This thing that’s going to be out here is about the threat from outside the building.”

(Casey McDermott can be reached at 369-3306 or cmcdermott@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @caseymcdermott.)

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