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School safety a challenge for local school districts

  • rindge, anderson, chris, police officer, jaffrey middle school, conant high school

    rindge, anderson, chris, police officer, jaffrey middle school, conant high school

  • rindge, anderson, chris, police officer, jaffrey middle school, conant high school

    rindge, anderson, chris, police officer, jaffrey middle school, conant high school

  • rindge, anderson, chris, police officer, jaffrey middle school, conant high school

    rindge, anderson, chris, police officer, jaffrey middle school, conant high school

  • rindge, anderson, chris, police officer, jaffrey middle school, conant high school

    rindge, anderson, chris, police officer, jaffrey middle school, conant high school

  • rindge, anderson, chris, police officer, jaffrey middle school, conant high school
  • rindge, anderson, chris, police officer, jaffrey middle school, conant high school
  • rindge, anderson, chris, police officer, jaffrey middle school, conant high school
  • rindge, anderson, chris, police officer, jaffrey middle school, conant high school

The Newtown, Conn., school shooting not only reopened a national debate on gun laws, it also brought renewed attention to the challenges of how to make schools safer. School administrators and teachers are being asked – and asking themselves – if there is more they can do to lessen the likelihood of another shooting tragedy. While they agree that complete protection from a Columbine- or Newtown-type incident is impossible, three officials working with local school systems say steps are under way to make our buildings as secure as possible.

The school
superintendent

“We can become safer, but we can’t be absolutely safe,” said ConVal School Superintendent Dick Bergeron on Thursday. “Our buildings are widely used by the community. The more people we invite in, the more vulnerable we are.”

Bergeron said parents and others are frequently in and out of school buildings during the school day and the buildings are open for a variety of activities after school, in the evenings and on weekends. That community culture of openess is valuable, but it does make security more challenging.

“The culture in our district seems to reject the idea that it could happen here,” said Bergeron. “The first step is to change that culture. But our schools are not prisons. We don’t have fences around the schools.”

School security is currently getting a thorough review at ConVal, with the focus on three areas: procedures, structural issues, and surveillance.

“Between crises, people don’t keep security in the forefront,” Bergeron said, noting that the state requires 10 evacuation drills a year, but eight of them must be fire drills. “There’s not the same demand about school security that there is about fire,” he said.

But that is changing. ConVal has always done the required drills, including two security drills a year, which are verified with the state. Now the district is planning to do more than the minimum.

“We do some lockdown drills, intruder alerts and emergency evacuation drills,” Bergeron said. “Should we do more? I think so.”

At all the district’s schools, doors are being kept locked except for the main entry door. People coming in are expected to check in at the office and pick up a visitor badge. Staffers are also wearing badges.

The district is also reviewing its systems for contacting police in the event of an emergency. Right now, a 911 call would be made and local police would respond. How quickly that would happen varies from town to town. Bergeron said he’s worked in districts where the person closest to the door has a panic button under the desk that would immediately summon local police, but nothing like that is in place at ConVal schools.

The district is also reviewing recess procedures, especially since so many of the district’s playgrounds are wide open.

Because the schools are so widely used, many different people have keys, but that may also change. Bergeron said the district is looking into the cost and logistics of installing card reader systems. ConVal Facilities Manager Tim Grossi said the remodeled ConVal gym addition will be prewired for a card reader system when construction is complete. But the plan for the gym did not included funding for card readers themselves.

Bergeron said structural issues at the district’s 11 buildings present a challenge. At the high school, visitors stop at the window by the front office, where a staffer confirms who they are and where they are going. The school is starting to have visitors escorted to their destinations. Similar practices are under way in the middle schools and elementary schools. But the high school is the only building where visitors are buzzed in and the layout at many other schools makes it difficult for staffers to observe people coming in or out.

“The sight lines for adults monitoring the schools are a real challenge,” Bergeron said. The small elementary schools have just one administrative assistant handling all sorts of tasks and that person isn’t always in the office.

“It’s going to take an investment,” Bergeron said. “Any admittance system requires an adult presence. We’ll have to invest in people as well.”

The new gymnasium wing at ConVal also presents a challenge, he said, because someone entering the school building at the main entrance will be able to turn right and walk directly into the gym wing, which will contain classrooms as well as locker rooms and team rooms.

Bergeron said he supports the addition of a school resource officer at the high school, which is being proposed on a petition warrant article, but that is not enough to make a school secure.

“The idea of an SRO as a deterrent is misleading,” he said. “It’s not a guarantee of safety and it’s not feasible to provide an SRO for all our schools.”

Bergeron said a review of security is under way and the district may work with a security consultant to develop recommendations. His goal is to develop a list of needs, a priority order and a range of costs, then determine what near-term steps to take and what to include in the district’s strategic plan for the next three to five years.

“We can make things better, but schools were not designed with safety in mind,” he said.

The teacher

Erik Thibault of Peterborough is a teacher at Milford High School and a member of the ConVal School Board who formerly taught at ConVal. He said things have changed drastically in the 15 years he’s been teaching.

“There are a lot more people paying attention to things like security, locked doors, cameras,” Thibault said on Wednesday. “That wasn’t really on the radar before. After Columbine, people started thinking this can happen anywhere and Newtown shows it’s not just high schools we have to worry about. People are re-evaluating.”

Thibault said teachers practice lockdowns and evacuations regularly.

“We all know what to do now. You pull kids away from the windows. You make them safe. Hopefully we never have to use it.”

He said teachers are likely to be the first responders to a violent intruder, which is not an easy responsibility.

“I consider it part of my job to protect my flock, my students,” he said. “I would hope the teacher of my own children feels the same way. If something happens, your job is to protect.”

He said teachers are making a real effort to identify potentially violent students.

“You try to keep your finger on the pulse of the students,” he said. “You alert guidance counselors and administration. We’re all more aware of bullying. It’s not that ‘boys will be boys’ mentality anymore. People are looking at what can we do to prevent something from happening.”

The resource officer

Chris Anderson, an officer in the Jaffrey Police Department, is the school resource officer for the Jaffrey-Rindge School District, spending much of his time at the high school and middle school campus on Stratton Road. He said part of his role is to provide training to teachers on how to react to an intrusion.

“Each situation is different and dynamic,” Anderson said last week. “Ultimately teachers are empowered to make decisions. They can take some kind of preventive action. The days of hiding and hoping are over.”

Anderson said the Jaffrey-Rindge district has been conducting regular lockdown drills. Classroom doors, he said, are set up so they just need to be pushed closed to lock them.

“We recommend staying away from windows and doors and turning out lights,” Anderson said. Once a classroom is locked down, teachers are instructed to keep students in place until they have information. If they hear sounds of violence or an announcement, they might take action to barricade the locked doors, or possibly use an external door or an exit to another room.

“Every situation presents a challenge and we can’t plan for every scenario,” Anderson said. “I’ve noticed that staff and students are really good at getting the school locked down quickly.”

Anderson said teachers are taught ways that they could react to an intruder.

“There’s no set parameter. I don’t teach how to grapple for a gun. I teach them to exploit what they have. If you throw a book, a can of soda, a chair at someone’s face, they have to react. That buys some time – not a lot, but some. If you have 30 textbooks flying at you, you might retreat or fall to the ground.”

He said some teachers feel they could take such action, while others are uncertain.

“Hopefully they can all plan ahead,” Anderson said. “I’ve had a lot of teachers come in and say thank you for doing what you do.”

Anderson said all school entrances are locked and visitors need to be buzzed in. At the high school and middle school, visitors are escorted to their destination. At some schools, the entrances are monitored visually and at others through a camera system.

“I think our plans are good,” Anderson said. “It’s going to require constant looking at them and making changes or updates. We need to continue to train in these areas.”

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