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School security evolving with new realities

Ed Galucki A teacher at Westside Elementary School enters one of the classroom hallways through one of the recently installed locking “storefront” entrances. Superintendent Tony Thurman said the school, built 35 years ago, was not designed to meet current security requirements; the doors were added to ensure staff members in the main office have control of who enters the classroom area. The doors are one of the changes made to increase security in the schools.Buy Photo
Ed Galucki A teacher at Westside Elementary School enters one of the classroom hallways through one of the recently installed locking “storefront” entrances. Superintendent Tony Thurman said the school, built 35 years ago, was not designed to meet current security requirements; the doors were added to ensure staff members in the main office have control of who enters the classroom area. The doors are one of the changes made to increase security in the schools.

School security issues far more pressing than cheating on tests face today’s school officials. From Internet safety to “active shooter” scenarios, administrators are preparing for situations undreamed of even 20 years ago, and those issues affect every part of school operation, from daily routines to building design.

On Thursday, Cabot School District superintendent Tony Thurman described some of the changes under way in the district to improve the safety of students and staff. A review of emergency procedures had begun in early fall 2012, but the school shootings at Newtown, Conn., gave new emphasis and direction to the review, Thurman said in a previous meeting.

And lessons learned in a series of drills conducted in January added more changes to be done. Planning for the drills had been completed in November 2012.

One of the first changes was to classroom doors, Thurman said. “Actually, it was the teachers who asked for [the door locks] right away,” he said.

Previously, teachers had to use a key in the outside door handle to lock the door. Now, all classroom doors have been refitted with interior locking mechanisms, Thurman said.

At first, installing bolt-action locks seemed the obvious fix, but Fire Chief Phil Robinson rejected that, Thurman said. “[Robinson] pointed out that regulations require that in case something happens to the teacher, the children have to be able to let themselves out,” he said.

Now, more than 450 door mechanisms and nearly $152,000 later, the doors can be secured from inside and still meet safety requirements, Thurman said.

“One of the main things we learned out of our drills, was that we need to do the drills more often,” Thurman said. Fire drills and tornado drills have always been done, but those dangers call for limited actions; for a tornado everyone moves into the hallway, for a fire everyone leaves the building.

But when considering threats, there are a number of scenarios, Thurman said. At first, the Newtown, Conn., tragedy, an active shooter, was the concern; but there are a number of threat scenarios, each calling for varying responses, he said.

“It depends on what the threat is, whether to lockdown, stay in the classroom, check what is going on,” Thurman said. There are different types of lockdowns; the drills are as needed by the school staff, perhaps more so, than the students, he said.

There is a need for much wider communication, not just between school staff members, but also with emergency responders, Thurman said.

Deputy superintendent Harold Jeffcoat said books detailing each school building had been developed for, and given to, the police and fire departments, ambulance services, and sheriff’s office.

While the recent school shootings had given new emphasis to the books, plans had begun because of problems that arose during school bus accidents.

Responders can now know special needs and requirements and locations without delay, he said.

The books are restricted to the emergency services and are not generally available, Thurman said. The information is valuable for the fire department personnel who come whenever an ambulance is called, “There is not a week that goes by that we don’t have at least one or two … that something happens that we need help,” he said.

To a certain extent, modifications have to be made in all the schools to meet new security needs, Thurman said. “Some more than others,” he remarked.

Even the relatively new Central Administration Building has been changed.

The central administrative office, his office, is the test site for a scanning lock system, Thurman said. “Not everybody who comes here is happy with us, so this is a good place to begin, to try it out,” he said.

Some schools, such as Westside Elementary, were built long before such security considerations had to be made and now face more extensive changes, Thurman said.

At Westside, changes included addition of locking “storefront” doorways to secure the hallways. “Now someone has to check in at the office to be able to get anywhere in the school,” Thurman said.

Another change requires re-teaching students about security, Thurman said.

All the school building doors are locked, except the main entrance, Thurman said. But, although locked from outside, all doors must be operable from inside in case of an evacuation, he said.

It has happened now and then that someone would need to get in and, with a tap on the door, someone inside would open the door; it was the polite thing to do, and we want our students to be polite,” Thurman said. “But we had to get the word out, not to do that anymore,” he said.

School personnel have been told that if they do not have a key to unlock a door, they must go to the main entrance; students have been told to not let anyone in, he said.

Increased video surveillance, security mirrors, scan codes and a number of other measures are being installed or considered, Thurman said.

Identification badges will now be changed each year, Thurman said, displaying his new ID.

Until now, ID badges were good until lost or damaged. Under the new policy, new badges will be made each year, with a different color each year.

The badges are especially helpful for staff members, such as maintenance or technology staff who are not familiar to people in the building, Thurman said.

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