August 26, 2013

Students to find better security at many Maine schools

Projects too big to do after the Newtown shootings were done during the summer break.

By Noel K. Gallagher ngallagher@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

More security cameras. Double sets of locking doors. Classroom doors that lock from the inside. Entryways in which secretaries sit behind thick glass so they can see who is arriving before buzzing them inside.

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These are some of the new security measures that students will find in Maine schools this fall, prompted in part by last December's massacre in Newtown, Conn.

"We feel it's money well spent," Lewiston Superintendent Bill Webster said of the $370,000 the district has used for security upgrades. The district got approval to spend the extra money out of construction funds.

"I feel pretty good about where we are," Webster said.

Many security changes were made in the immediate aftermath of the mass shooting in December at Sandy Hook Elementary School, where Adam Lanza killed 26 students and teachers. Larger projects, usually involving new construction in a school entryway, were delayed until the summer months when students were on break.

At least one more drastic measure that came about after Newtown, a bill that would have given schools in Maine the option of allowing teachers and other staff members to carry concealed handguns in school, failed in the legislative session.

Several schools have added security upgrades to plans already in place to renovate certain buildings, using construction funds.

State education officials sent out a memo to all schools after the Newtown shooting, recommending that they update their security procedures. Many districts reported using federal U.S. Department of Justice grants to conduct audits or pay for security upgrades.

State law requires school districts to have comprehensive emergency plans for situations 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 in which a school was built. Newer schools tend to have more built-in safety measures.

Webster said school officials in Lewiston were able to add new safety features at Louis J. Martel Elementary School as part of a $9 million overall renovation under way at the school. The district added $270,000 to reconfigure the entryway, partly by raising the roof and adding an adjacent secretary's office. The district also spent $100,000 upgrading the locks on all the classrooms so they could be locked from the inside, and so that the keys could not be easily duplicated.

In SAD 51, which serves students in Cumberland and North Yarmouth, security upgrades caused considerable upheaval after the initial $50,000 project cost soared to $276,000 without board approval. School board co-chairman Jeff Porter quit after the cost overrun came to light. The initial proposal was to install specialized door locks operated with electronic swipe cards. The final system included new computer systems, cameras, intercoms and other equipment not mentioned in the original plan.

Porter criticized Superintendent Robert Hasson for failing to obtain public bids for the project and for not bringing the extra expense to the board for a vote. He criticized the board for not having a more aggressive financial watchdog role.

In RSU 57, the school board had a two-year-old security audit in hand when the Newtown shooting happened, and it prompted the Massabesic-area district board to fund the audit's suggested changes.

"There will be some changes to all of our schools that not all students have seen," Superintendent John Davis said. He said officials worked closely with the sheriff's department to improve security.

Among the changes: adding buzzer systems to all school entryways, trimming vegetation to improve outside sight lines, and painting foot-high numbers at all the school entry/exit doors on the outside of the building to assist emergency personnel if they respond to an incident at the school.

In Auburn, an entry to one school was remodeled this summer because the secretary could not see the entrance. Before the change, secretaries monitored the entry via a camera on a computer. The school system is also upgrading video cameras throughout the district and adding swipe card areas for staff-only access.

In most districts only teachers get swipe cards, but in RSU 14, students will need them to get in and out of the school. The Raymond-area schools in the district already had intercoms and remote-access systems, and the district used federal grant money to add similar systems to the Windham schools, said Superintendent Sandy Prince.

At one high school and a primary school, school officials reconfigured the entryways so staffers could see who was entering the school, he said.

"After Sandy Hook, we took it upon ourselves to hire someone to manually open the door," Prince said. "We knew we were headed in this direction; we just needed the summer to do it."

Noel K. Gallagher can be contacted at 791-6387 or at:

ngallagher@pressherald.com

 

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Today's poll: School security

Should Maine schools spend more on security?

Yes

No

View Results