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Sandy Hook results in reexamination of school safety plans

By Bill Pearson
Staff Writer

    Each year, Maine school administrators hope to find an answer to a perplexing question: how to maintain a friendly and welcoming atmosphere in their buildings while at the same time protecting their students. That question came under even more scrutiny after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Connecticut which claimed the lives of 20 students and six staff people in December.


    Maine school districts are required by law to review and approve an All-Hazards Plan designed to handle any emergency from a chemical spill to combating an intruder. Following Sandy Hook, Maine Department of Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen urged all school districts to re-examine their plans in light of the recent tragedy.

    Some local school officials contacted Piscataquis County Emergency Management Agency Director Thomas Capraro to update the plans. Capraro has met with school officials in Greenville, SAD 4 and  RSU 68. In each case, Capraro believed it is important for the schools to keep the doors locked and maintain a security checkpoint at the main entrance.

    “We’ve seen most of the older schools tend not to lock their main entrance,” Capraro said. “It is so important to know who is coming into a school. The best thing a school can do is keep those doors locked.”

    Prior to the Sandy Hook shooting, only SeDoMoCha Elementary School in Dover-Foxcroft and Ridge View Community School in Dexter had locked their doors. Both schools were equipped with modern security features such as double doors which lock from the inside. Both main offices are also located near the entrance so office personnel can see who wants to enter the building.

    The SeDoMoCha Elementary addition was built to the existing middle school building in 2007. The addition serves as the main entrance to both the elementary and middle school buildings. All visitors must push a buzzer prior to gaining entrance.

    Ridge View consolidated all SAD 46 K-grade eight students into a central building in 2010. Visitors also push a buzzer to gain entrance. Other local schools are several decades older and don’t have the modern security features the two newer schools possess.

    The state Department of Education provides local school districts with advice and resources for maintaining school protection, but they don’t mandate schools follow many specific procedures.

    “The DOE mandates all building projects which receive state funding have double doors and a lot of glass near the entrance,” said Maine Department of Education spokesman David Connerty-Marin. “The state requires an All-Hazards Plan for each district to review and adopt each year, but other than that there is not a lot of requirements placed on local districts concerning school safety.”

    While SeDoMoCha and Ridge View both have a modern entrance into their schools, it doesn’t guarantee security against an intruder with a high-powered rifle. Sandy Hook Elementary was also equipped with locked double doors and a visible entrance area.

    SAD 4 Superintendent Paul Stearns believes all of the current activity regarding updating school safety plans is a worthwhile project, but he’s not convinced that he and his fellow administrators will ever come up with a full-proof plan.

    “The biggest challenge that all superintendents face is protecting our students. No matter how good a plan you come up with there is always somebody motivated enough to compromise it,” Stearns said.

    SAD 4 reviewed their All-Hazards Plan in October. They reviewed it again with county officials following the Sandy Hook Elementary shootings. SAD 4 also contracted with Exactitude, a Cumberland based firm, which specializes in school security. Exactitude provides school districts with an independent view of the current security practices.

    During his tenure as superintendent, Stearns said its been an ongoing process to improve security. SAD 4 has upgraded their communications system, installed a video surveillance system which allows law enforcement personnel to view both inside and outside the schools.

    “Our new communications system will contact parents by phone, e-mail and text message instantly. The video surveillance system is password protected so all we need to do is provide law enforcement the code and they can view any potential dangerous situation.”

    SAD 46 has also used a subsidiary of Exactitude —Precision Access in Bangor — to review their security system. Unlike the Ridge View school, Dexter Regional High School’s entrance is not locked. SAD 46 officials are considering purchasing a security surveillance system to monitor the high school’s entrance.

    RSU 68 officials are also looking into purchasing a video surveillance system. At their Jan. 8 meeting, the RSU 68 school board decided to move forward with their plans to purchase and install a system to monitor both inside and outside SeDoMoCha. The cameras would have a 30-day storage capability. Smith estimated the project would cost between $80,000 to $100,000.

    Foxcroft Academy has also taken steps toward improved school security. Headmaster Arnold Shorey reported that the school now requires all staff to wear an identification badge, all classroom doors are set to lock and administrators are working with public safety officials to ensure school plans integrate seamlessly with other municipal and county emergency response planning.

    In the past week, national and state leaders proposed legislation designed to make public schools more  safe. On Jan. 16, President Obama introduced his plan for stricter gun control legislation. The President wants to ban the sale of all military-style weapons and initiate background checks on all gun sales.

    On Jan. 21 state Senator David Burns (R-Washington) unveiled his approach to protecting Maine public school students. He proposed a bill to allow schools to have an armed staff person on the premises. Under current law only law enforcement personnel are allowed to possess weapons on school grounds.

    Burns believes public schools are soft-targets for “crazed gunmen.” His proposal would allow armed staff which includes either a security guard or teacher to have a concealed weapon inside the school. Burns’ bill would require those carrying a weapons to complete a firearms training course and undergo a psychological examination.

    State Rep. Pete Johnson (R-Greenville) is on the Education Committee. He is also a member of the Greenville School Committee. He doesn’t agree with the President’s or Burns’ approach, but he’s not opposed to another option which emerged shortly after the Sandy Hook shooting.

    Johnson believes having a police officer on a school campus is a more realistic option. However, he knows that local school districts and the state legislature will both have a difficult time to fund it.

    “It really comes down to money. If you hire a security guard it’s going to take away funding for educational programs,” Johnson said. “Most everyone I know would rather spend those dollars on educational programs.”

    Dexter Police Chief Kevin Wintle also favors having a police presence in local schools on a daily basis. Town officials approached the SAD 46 board of directors last fall about hiring a school resource officer. Under the proposal, the town and school district would contribute equally to paying for the position.

    Even before the Sandy Hook incident, Wintle believed having a police officer in the school would serve several needs within the school system and community.

    “I was the school resource officer in Newport and it really was a good program,” Wintle said. “The officer would be in the schools making security checks early in the morning. He would then lead programs designed to create a better relationship between students and law enforcement.”

    Wintle began his attempt to add a resource officer shortly after he became the chief last June. He was able to persuade the town council to fund the program, but SAD 46 declined to participate based on the financial considerations.

    Since the Sandy Hook incident, SAD 46 seemingly has had a change of heart. District officials met with Wintle and Dexter Town Manager Linda-Jean Briggs on Jan. 24 to consider a joint effort in funding a resource officer position for SAD 46 schools.

    “A lot has happened since last fall. We are continuing to look at ways to improve school safety so we are looking at the prospect of hiring a school resource officer,” said Jordan.

    Stearns also believes having a law enforcement presence on campus would provide an additional layer of protection. SAD 4 has found the same obstacle other schools have encountered in hiring a resource officer.

    “We’ve been unsuccessful in being approved for a grant. I think it’s a wonderful idea, but we simply don’t have the funding for that type of program,” Stearns said.

    Whatever ideas emerge to better protect Maine public schools will mostly likely be vetted by the Department of Education’s Inter-Agency Group on School Preparedness. The group consists of representatives from the DOE, Maine Emergency Management Association, municipal public safety officials and school superintendents. The group’s purpose is to continually review various aspects of school safety to prepare for any contingency.

    “The group has been charged to review every aspect of school safety. Their monthly meeting happened a week after the Sandy Hook shooting. Commissioner Bowen addressed the group and later urged all school districts to review their plans,” Connerty-Marin said.

    As more proposals about stricter gun control, arming staff or hiring security guards arise, Stearns believes its important to respect all viewpoints in the debate because the ultimate goal of all those involved is protect the lives of students.

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