Daily Hampshire Gazette - Established 1786
M/cloudy
33°
M/cloudy
Hi 36° | Lo 21°

Newtown shootings spark changes in school security

  • Leverett Elementary School principal Anne Ross opens the front door for students arriving early to the school.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING

    Leverett Elementary School principal Anne Ross opens the front door for students arriving early to the school.
    KEVIN GUTTING Purchase photo reprints »

  • Leverett Elementary School principal Anne Ross, top, opens the front door for early arrivals to the school on a Tuesday morning last month.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING

    Leverett Elementary School principal Anne Ross, top, opens the front door for early arrivals to the school on a Tuesday morning last month.
    KEVIN GUTTING Purchase photo reprints »

  • Leverett Elementary School principal Anne Ross opens the front door for early arrivals to the school on a Tuesday morning last month.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING

    Leverett Elementary School principal Anne Ross opens the front door for early arrivals to the school on a Tuesday morning last month.
    KEVIN GUTTING Purchase photo reprints »

  • Leverett Elementary School.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING

    Leverett Elementary School.
    KEVIN GUTTING Purchase photo reprints »

  • Plains Elementary School students Riley Lewinski, 5, and Mason Keen, 6, of South Hadley work on computers in the library on Wednesday, February 27, 2013. The interior windows of the library, shown at back, have been painted to discourage intruders after the shootings in Newton, CT.  <br/><br/>SARAH CROSBY

    Plains Elementary School students Riley Lewinski, 5, and Mason Keen, 6, of South Hadley work on computers in the library on Wednesday, February 27, 2013. The interior windows of the library, shown at back, have been painted to discourage intruders after the shootings in Newton, CT.

    SARAH CROSBY Purchase photo reprints »

  • Plains Elementary School interior windows have been painted to discourage intruders after the shootings in Newton, CT. The library windows are shown on Wednesday, February 27, 2013. <br/><br/>SARAH CROSBY

    Plains Elementary School interior windows have been painted to discourage intruders after the shootings in Newton, CT. The library windows are shown on Wednesday, February 27, 2013.

    SARAH CROSBY Purchase photo reprints »

  • Leverett Elementary School principal Anne Ross opens the front door for students arriving early to the school.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING
  • Leverett Elementary School principal Anne Ross, top, opens the front door for early arrivals to the school on a Tuesday morning last month.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING
  • Leverett Elementary School principal Anne Ross opens the front door for early arrivals to the school on a Tuesday morning last month.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING
  • Leverett Elementary School.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING
  • Plains Elementary School students Riley Lewinski, 5, and Mason Keen, 6, of South Hadley work on computers in the library on Wednesday, February 27, 2013. The interior windows of the library, shown at back, have been painted to discourage intruders after the shootings in Newton, CT.  <br/><br/>SARAH CROSBY
  • Plains Elementary School interior windows have been painted to discourage intruders after the shootings in Newton, CT. The library windows are shown on Wednesday, February 27, 2013. <br/><br/>SARAH CROSBY

When the Leverett school board met last month to vote on a plan to begin locking the front door for the first time during the day, its members braced themselves for a vigorous public debate.

For years, parents had resisted the idea, wanting the ease of entry and viewing the open front door as a sign of a welcoming smalltown school.

But the Newtown school shootings were a game-changer.

With the local meeting coming just two months after a gunman massacred 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, the door-locking proposal passed unanimously with little discussion.

“It was a very, very quick conversation,” said Leverett School Committee Chairwoman Dawn Sacks. “The only parent who showed up was one who wanted to see the door locked.”

Principal Anne Ross proposed the door locking measure to improve security at her school of 140 students in grades K-6 in the wake of a tragedy she says affected all schools across the country.

“People will say ‘I’m sorry we had to do this’ but at the same time, they’re happy their children are safe,” Ross said.

Events in Newtown have rekindled a national debate about school safety that dates back more than a decade to the Columbine High School shootings in Colorado.

Some organizations such as the National Rifle Association have called for arming school employees in the wake of the Dec. 14 shootings at Sandy Hook. Others, such as the National PTA, have recommended reinstating and expanding a federal ban on the assault–style weapons used in the Connecticut school slayings.

Late last week, South Dakota Gov. Dennis Daugaard signed a bill allowing teachers in his state to carry guns in school, the first such law enacted since Newtown.

While there have been no such public calls to arms in the Pioneer Valley, area schools have taken other steps to boost security in the months since the shootings. School leaders say those measures might not have occurred or would have stayed on the back burner if not for the tragedy in the neighboring state.

In Northampton, for example, cameras are being installed at Northampton High School and police and school officials have launched a new Adopt-a-School program, in which a specific officer is assigned to be on-call for each of the city’s four elementary schools.

The district already has a school resource officer covering JFK Middle School, NHS and Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School. In the absence of an officer assigned solely to Smith Voke, Superintendent Jeffrey Peterson said he wants to hire a security guard to patrol the vocational school campus.

Within the Hampshire Regional district, door-locking practices are being closely monitored and classroom numbers have been painted on all school windows so they can be easily identified from the outside.

In South Hadley, police have begun holding breakfast meetings at area schools to inform parents about regular lockdown drills and other school safety protocols.

In the Amherst Regional district, more such drills are being scheduled for students at all grade levels and administrators are reviewing safety plans for each building to see where they can be improved.

At Hilltown Cooperative Charter Public School in Haydenville, plans are under way to build a wall with a locked door separating the school’s first-floor entryway from a hallway it shares with other tenants of the Brassworks building on Main Street. Currently the school has no lock on its door.

And yet, despite incidents such as Columbine and Newtown, research shows American schools generally are safe places. A study by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention of violent deaths for the 2009-10 school year, for example, found the chances of a student aged 5 to 18 being killed at school, on the way to school or at a school event was one in 2.5 million.

Safety measures many schools installed after the Columbine shootings, including lockdown drills, buzzer systems and cameras, have also boosted security, experts say. Teachers at Sandy Hook followed those protocols by keeping children out of sight in locked classrooms while the shooting was in progress.

Law enforcement perspective

Northwestern District Attorney David Sullivan maintains armed school resource officers, such as those in place in Northampton and Easthampton for a dozen years, are a powerful deterrent to harm.

But he emphasized the most effective school safety measures are clear plans for coping with dangers that are understood by all school staff.

“Do I feel every school in America should be armed? Absolutely not.” Sullivan said. ”Do I feel all communities should be prepared? Yes, absolutely.”

To ensure that all area schools have adequate safety plans, Sullivan’s office and the State Police have created a joint School Safety Task Force to share best practices and offer training. The task force, created within a month after Newtown, is focusing on an “all hazards” approach that prepares schools for many types of emergencies, Sullivan said.

State Police Lt. Andrew Bzdel of the Northampton barracks, who is heading up the new group, said the task force will serve 110 communities in Franklin and Hampshire counties and should be of particular help to small towns with fewer law enforcement resources.

“There is definitely more demand for this since Newtown and more of a demand to get everyone on the same page,” Bzdel said.

Finding a balance

In reviewing safety plans, many school leaders said they’re trying to balance improving security with preserving a welcoming school climate.

“We’ve been trying to help parents understand that unless we give schools penitentiary–style barricades, we can’t possibly prevent every episode, “ said Easthampton School Superintendent Nancy Follansbee. “But we can be prepared and that’s where our focus is.”

“The balance is, how do you maintain an open and welcoming community so that children don’t feel they’re in prison?” said Bill Collins, principal of the William Norris Elementary School in Southampton. “You want schools to be fun and engaging, not places that would dampen their spirits.”

Administrators at Jackson Street School in Northampton say they walked that line last month in deciding to limit entry by parents and students to the main doorway and begin requiring all adults — even parents known to the school — to sign in at the office and wear visitor badges.

“For us, this has been a change in our culture,” said Principal Gwen Agna. “When I first started here, there was a desire to make parents feel more welcome. We don’t want to destroy that. But my understanding is we were the only school still doing things this way.”

Agna said Jackson Street went through a similar adjustment about six years ago when buzzers and cameras were first installed at the front door.

“There were lots of concerns and fears from people who said, ‘I can’t believe the school would be like this,’” she said. “There is some sense of loss but we will get used to this, too. And we’ll still be a welcoming school.”

Mary Cowhey, a math teacher who hosts regular math club sessions for parents before and after school at Jackson Street, said most families have accepted the changes. “I think that the concerns of parents across the board are for the safety of their children,” Cowhey said. “As a school community, people have been pretty understanding about the new routine.”

It’s not just parents who have shifted their views.

Jillayne Flanders, principal of Plains Elementary School in South Hadley, said holding lockdown drills for her school’s pre-K through second-grade students was not something the staff felt inclined to do in past years because they feared it would scare the children.

“But we’d moved along in all of our concerns,” said Flanders, whose school recently spent more than $4,000 to upgrade locks on classroom doors. “We did a faculty training and had set our date for a drill — and then Newtown happened.”

The drill was held some weeks later, to avoid linking it too closely to the shootings, Flanders said. Windows in some interior classrooms that look onto the school library have also recently been painted over to discourage intruders.

The heightened attention to safety in the wake of Newtown has sometimes led to controversy.

At NHS, a decision to have students write out a safety pledge to aid the police investigation of an anonymous written threat to the school made just days after the Sandy Hook shootings divided the community. While some parents and students viewed the decision as a violation of civil liberties, others rallied behind administrators, saying their actions helped keep the school safe.

With many school districts facing grim budgets for the coming year, administrators say finding resources to boost school safety is difficult.

“It’s an unfunded mandate,” said Karen Jarvis Vance, head of health and safety for the Northampton schools.

In better economic times, the district had three school resource officers covering the schools, according to the police department. Federal grant funding to police departments to hire school officers ended in 2005.

President Barack Obama has called for restoring those grants and also providing money for more school guidance counselors. But funding may be affected by the budget sequestration cuts that went into effect March 1.

Other school safety efforts have focused not on funding, but on better planning.

State Sen. Richard Moore, D-Uxbridge, has proposed bills requiring annual safety reviews of school buildings and consultation with local police and fire departments in designing new ones. He has also proposed better coordination of services for at-risk youth through more information sharing between agencies.

Local school leaders and law enforcement officials say climate-building programs such as small group advisories and other programs aimed at communication are also key to school safety.

“What really makes a difference is having an open relationship where the kids feel comfortable talking to someone in the building,” said Alan Schadel, Easthampton’s police school resource officer.

NHS senior Jonah Hahn said he feels such openness is worth preserving at his school.

“Having the building full of police officers, that doesn’t feel very comfortable,” said Hahn, who is part of a student-led gun-control petition drive launched by fellow members of the city’s Youth Commission. “As a senior, when I look back at NHS and how safe and comfortable it’s felt to express my opinion, that’s a special quality. When it starts to become a patrolled place, it loses that.”

Ross, of Leverett Elementary School is among those who view Newtown as a hinge moment. “It’s very much like 9-11,” she said. “Our communities didn’t feel locking the doors was necessary and we weren’t sure ourselves. But our society has been evolving — and not in a good way.”

Jurgensen of Hampshire Regional said an ongoing conversation about school safety has been infused with urgency by recent events.

As with the signs newly posted on doors at the high school reminding students to use the main entryway, “You can’t escape the fact that things have changed,” he said.

Legacy Comments0
There are no comments yet. Be the first!
Post a Comment

You must be registered to comment on stories. Click here to register.