December 18, 2012

Schools in Maine, state officials put renewed focus on security measures

Some Maine school districts have beefed up security temporarily in response to the massacre, while others are calling for thorough reviews of security protocol.

By Eric Russell erussell@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

The Maine Department of Education is recommending that schools update their security procedures in light of Friday's shootings at an elementary school in Connecticut that killed 20 students and six employees.

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A Portland police cruiser sits Monday in front of Longfellow Elementary School on Stevens Avenue as police stepped up patrols of schools in the wake of the Newtown, Conn., shootings.

Gabe Souza / Staff Photographer

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The department sent an email Monday, the first full school day since the shootings, "asking every school district in the state to examine its all-hazards emergency plans as soon as possible to ensure they are up-to-date, and to involve local law enforcement/public safety personnel in that review, and to consider what efforts may be necessary locally to update plans, train, or otherwise enhance preparedness and planning."

Some Maine school districts have beefed up security temporarily in response to the massacre, while others are calling for thorough reviews of security protocol.

Yarmouth Superintendent Judy Paolucci said the question she has been asked most often since Friday is: How can we eliminate the threat from our community and our schools?

"The simple answer is that we can't eliminate this threat," she wrote in a letter to parents. "That does not mean, however, that we cannot work to reduce this risk and other risks for our students."

Thirteen years ago, the mass shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado spurred school officials across the country to talk about improving safety. Many pushed for swift changes, from installing metal detectors to requiring staff members and students to wear photo ID badges.

But the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., showed that such security measures sometimes are not enough. Adam Lanza shot his way into a school that most thought was secure.

The consensus Monday among Maine school administrators was that safety is an ongoing discussion that intensifies -- appropriately -- when tragedy strikes.

"You always try to balance being an open community institution against the tragic reality that not all who come to school are going to do good," said Augusta Superintendent Connie Brown.

Sonayia Shepherd, a senior analyst with the Georgia-based campus security firm Safe Havens International, said it's important for school administrators to take a step back and not "jump to solutions."

"Generally, schools are a safe place to be and are certainly much safer now than even a decade ago," she said.

Maine schools have taken some steps to ensure increased safety.

In the last year, Paolucci said, locks were installed on all interior classroom doors in Yarmouth's schools. The department also received a federal grant to pay for an audit to identify security weaknesses and suggest changes. That work continues.

Biddeford Superintendent Jeremy Ray said he has gotten emails about safety in the last few days. His staff plans to re-examine its facilities and emergency response plans immediately.

He said it's important that the current focus on students' safety doesn't fade as time passes.

"What we do today should be no different from what we do three weeks from now," Ray said.

Last year, Biddeford implemented a system for lockdowns in which each teacher, after securing the classroom, slides a sheet of paper under their door into the hallway to alert police to the status of their students. Green means everyone is safe. Red means they need help.

Another common security update in Maine's public schools has been locking all exterior doors and having a buzz-through system at the main door.

Any visitor who comes to the front entrance of a school must press a button. Someone inside the school then must press another button to unlock the door. Augusta has such a system in its schools, Brown said.

Regional School Unit 14 Superintendent Sandy Prince said the front offices at Raymond schools have the same measures. He said the district has been looking at ways to install similar systems in Windham schools, and got a grant from the U.S. Department of Justice to help pay for them. He hopes to have the systems in place this summer.

In 2006, seven years after the Columbine shootings, the Lewiston Sun Journal sent reporters to schools in its area to test their security. In nearly half of the schools, a reporter was able to walk around unnoticed for several minutes. That investigation led the Maine Department of Education to issue security recommendations.

State law requires school districts to have comprehensive plans to address emergencies ranging from shootings to bomb threats to natural disasters to fires. Local emergency responders must participate in the development of those plans.

Safety protocols vary depending on the school district, the type of school and, in some cases, the year a school was built. Newer schools tend to have more built-in safety measures.

School officials used to practice evacuation drills, herding students out in calm, single-file fashion. Now, most schools also incorporate lockdown drills into their routines, so they can ensure safety if everyone must stay inside the building.

In a letter to parents, Cape Elizabeth Superintendent Meredith Nadeau said Monday that her schools practiced such drills last month.

The state was considering making lockdown drills mandatory even before the Newtown shootings, said David Connerty-Marin, spokesman for the state Department of Education.

Monday's email from the department to schools recommended that school officials work with Maine Emergency Management Agency officials to update their procedures.

"Law enforcement at all levels -- from local to state -- are given intensive and consistent training on how to deal with an 'active shooter' situation," the email said. "In the event of a shooting incident, we have people across the state with a high level of training prepared to step in. ... We can all do more, and this horrible event is a reminder that we must continually re-examine our efforts in this area."

In the wake of Friday's shootings, some schools, including those in Portland, have increased security temporarily, including having police patrol nearby.

In many areas of the state, schools already have armed police officers in the halls. The state doesn't track how many schools employ resource officers, but the decision often comes down to whether a town agrees to fund them.

Brown, the superintendent in Augusta, said not all of her schools have armed resource officers, but she thinks they are a good idea.

"There should be someone in the school who might be prepared if something like this happened," she said.

Heidi Valeriani, whose 5-year-old kindergartner, Tammy, attends Reiche Community School in Portland, said she believes her daughter's school is safe, but she couldn't help but feel a bit nervous Monday.

"I'm worried to a certain extent," she said, but "you can't think, 'Oh my gosh, we have to lock down completely.' This is a safe community."

Another Reiche parent, Salena Manzer, said more security, such as police officers and screening, is needed.

"They have cops at Portland High School," she said. "We shouldn't just let random people in and out of schools."

As school officials seek to assure parents and other community members that their schools are safe, there is an economic reality. Security improvements are often expensive, and most school budgets are being slashed.

But Shepherd, with Safe Havens International, said schools can do many things to increase security without adding much cost, such as educating staffers and empowering them to make decisions

"After a big tragedy, everyone wants to get metal detectors and high-security fixtures," she said. "But the best thing is usually to enforce the policies that are already in place."

– Staff writers Leslie Bridgers, Matt Byrne and Ann S. Kim contributed to this report.

Staff Writer Eric Russell can be contacted at 791-6344 or at: erussell@pressherald.com

Twitter: @PPHEricRussell

 

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Today's poll: School security

Do you think Maine schools need to increase security in response to the Connecticut school shooting?

Yes

No

View Results