Security upgrades at Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School include emphasis on communication

Last modified: Friday, January 30, 2015

NORTHAMPTON — Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School aims to increase school safety with more than $160,000 in security upgrades and a commitment to better communication in the digital age.

The school installed 20 new security cameras last fall and plans to add 20 more as part of an upgrade to a new surveillance system, said Smith Vocational Security Director Kevin Brown. Features of the new system include the ability to connect the cameras to a computer or mobile application that allows law enforcement to watch the school’s security footage from their devices, Brown said.

The school has also purchased 20 handheld radios for staff, which Brown said are particularly important for instructors of agriculture, physical education and other shops at a distance from the main office.

Another priority is to replace the doors and locks in the building that can only be locked using a key with thumb latches, which would allow doors to be locked faster if an intruder was in the building, Brown noted.

“The first thing you lose if you’re under duress is your fine motor skills, and it’s all about time,” he said.

Brown said these security upgrades will cost the school a total of between $160,000 and $175,000.

The public is invited to a presentation on “Commit to Communicate,” an initiative led by Brown that asks parents, school staff and students to pay attention to cues in social media, text messages and verbal communication that may hint at a possible threat.

Brown will give the presentation on at 7 a.m. Feb. 13 in the Oliver Smith Restaurant at Smith Vocational campus and again at 6 p.m. in the school library. The presentation will be followed by a discussion.

Social media cues

Brown said he believes that often in the days or weeks leading up to an attack, students display signs through social media or other electronic forms of communication.

He cites the school shooting in Marysville, Washington, on Oct. 24, 2014, before which the shooter had sent text messages such as “Don’t bother coming to my funeral,” and “I set the date. You have no idea what I’m talking about, but you will,” to another student. The shooter also tweeted emotionally on Twitter in the days leading up to the shooting.

Brown said that parents and guardians should encourage their children to speak up to either a parent or school staff member should they receive a suspicious communication.

“From my experience and what I understand, we can train and we can work and we can drill, but one of the key elements of this in my mind is communication,” Brown said.

Last year, Brown did an assessment of safety at the school, and noted that the open campus similar to that of a college provides a different challenge from most high schools.

Security concerns

Superintendent Jeffrey Peterson said Brown was hired in August 2013 after a survey completed by the teachers revealed one of the major concerns among school staff to be security. He said that while he believes the school has become a safer place since Brown was hired, he agrees that the open campus creates an unusual challenge.

“I’m very pleased about school security since Kevin Brown got here. He’s really stepped it up. In the past we’ve just had people coming and going as they please, and you can’t do that in a high school,” Peterson said. “Being an open campus, it presents so many problems.”

Peterson, who has argued in favor of a new school facility for Smith Vocational, said his goal is to have one building that could be locked that would house all classes and shops.

Brown worked for the Franklin County Sheriff’s Office for 21 years, retiring as director of jail operations. Before being hired at Smith Vocational, he had returned to the sheriff’s office part time, and did lockdown trainings in Valley schools with Massachusetts State Police from the Northampton barracks. He has also worked as a police officer in Northfield.

The new security initiatives also include training for all students and faculty in the “ALICE” protocol — or Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter and Evacuate — for responding to an intruder in the building. All faculty and administration were trained in the “ALICE” protocol last summer, and Brown said he plans to organize training for the students after his presentation.

Brown noted that to “inform” means to move away from code words such as “Code Orange” or “Pink Elephant” that have been used in some schools in the United States, and to instead provide a specific description of the threat — such as a person with a gun walking into one of the buildings.

Brown said that though nine out of ten apparent threats turn out to be unfounded, his hope is that better communication will help stop the one threat that is real.

“My hope is if we can open dialogue with parents, then maybe we can make a difference in keeping our kids safe,” he said.

Gena Mangiaratti can be reached at


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