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Keeping safe

Franklin County schools review security procedures after Newtown shooting

Recorder/Paul Franz

Recorder/Paul Franz

Three days after 20 children and six adults were killed in a mass shooting at a Newtown, Conn., elementary school, Franklin County school administrators sought Monday to have as normal a day as possible for students.

At districts across the region, teachers were briefed before the school day on how to best answer students’ questions about the shooting.

Some elementary schools had plans in place to allow conversation if it was brought up, while others asked parents to have discussions with their children in a home setting.

Grief counselors were available at schools across the county. And school officials provided parents with resources on how to communicate to their children about the event.

“We’re trying as best as we can to get back to a feeling of safety and normalcy,” said Joan Wickman, superintendent of the Union 28 schools — which serve Erving, Leverett, New Salem, Shutesbury and Wendell.

“We’re trying to also reassure kids that this was a tragic event, but also an extremely rare one,” said Wickman. “This does not happen very often at all.”

Meanwhile, superintendents met with school principals and staff to review security measures and procedures.

The specific protocols vary from school to school, but they are all fundamentally the same. Most schools have an electronic system that requires an employee inside the building to manually release a locked door to let a visitor into the building. And many regularly practice “lockdown drills,” which prepare students for an emergency situation like a school shooter.

Still, school administrators said Monday that they plan to look for ways that their security measures can be strengthened.

There is a lot of work to be done at Orange elementary schools, according to Superintendent Michael Baldassarre, who said that the schools only had one lockdown drill last year.

Baldassarre also realized during his review that the district’s detailed emergency plan was posted online, which he said essentially gave a would-be intruder a “blueprint” on how to best carry out an attack. It has since been taken down and replaced with a general list of the district’s security measures.

Greenfield Superintendent Susan Hollins, who could not be reached for comment, echoed that thought in a recent entry on her online journal.

“We will be going over all of these matters ... be sure of this,” she wrote. “If the community does not hear discussion about how our security systems on buildings work, it is for a security reason.”

But even heightened security measures and a well-executed safety plan may not be enough to stop someone intent on entering a school, some school officials said.

Police have said that Adam Lanza, the 20-year-old man identified as the Newtown shooter, forcibly entered the school by shooting out one of the building’s glass entrance ways.

“No school to my knowledge has bulletproof glass,” said Robert Aeschback, chairman of the Mohawk Trail Regional School Committee. “If anyone is determined to get into a school, they can do it. ... We cannot turn the schools into forts.”

Shelley Jackson, head of the Bement School, said that the Deerfield private school does everything in its power to maintain security, but that there is only so much humanly possible.

“We wake up every single day thinking about (the students’) safety and we do everything we know how to do to keep them safe at school,” she said. “I believe everyone’s aware that (for) someone intent on an action like last Friday, no lock is going to make a difference.”

In the eyes of Franklin County Sheriff Christopher Donelan, current school security measures simply are not strong enough.

“Once a school is in session and the doors are locked, no one should be buzzed into the building without proof of ID, and no one at the door seeking access should be let in without having made an appointment to enter the school prior to their arrival,” said Donelan in a prepared statement issued this weekend.

“Security at our school is centered on making access easy for parents, and although that is a laudable goal, it creates a huge hole in security measures and puts our kids at risk,” he said.

The sheriff has contacted area superintendents asking them to reevaluate their procedures, and has offered the services of his office to assist with future planning.

One possibility, Donelan said Monday, would be to pool resources to hire an outside expert — who could work with schools to review protocols, revise emergency preparation plans and run in-school drills. He has offered to take the lead on the project if enough school districts express interest.

You can reach Chris Shores at:
cshores@recorder.com
or 413-772-0261, ext. 264

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