December 18, 2012

Schools in Maine, state officials put renewed focus on security measures

Some Maine school districts have beefed up security temporarily in response to the massacre, while others are calling for thorough reviews of security protocol.

By Eric Russell erussell@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

The Maine Department of Education is recommending that schools update their security procedures in light of Friday's shootings at an elementary school in Connecticut that killed 20 students and six employees.

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A Portland police cruiser sits Monday in front of Longfellow Elementary School on Stevens Avenue as police stepped up patrols of schools in the wake of the Newtown, Conn., shootings.

Gabe Souza / Staff Photographer

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The department sent an email Monday, the first full school day since the shootings, "asking every school district in the state to examine its all-hazards emergency plans as soon as possible to ensure they are up-to-date, and to involve local law enforcement/public safety personnel in that review, and to consider what efforts may be necessary locally to update plans, train, or otherwise enhance preparedness and planning."

Some Maine school districts have beefed up security temporarily in response to the massacre, while others are calling for thorough reviews of security protocol.

Yarmouth Superintendent Judy Paolucci said the question she has been asked most often since Friday is: How can we eliminate the threat from our community and our schools?

"The simple answer is that we can't eliminate this threat," she wrote in a letter to parents. "That does not mean, however, that we cannot work to reduce this risk and other risks for our students."

Thirteen years ago, the mass shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado spurred school officials across the country to talk about improving safety. Many pushed for swift changes, from installing metal detectors to requiring staff members and students to wear photo ID badges.

But the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., showed that such security measures sometimes are not enough. Adam Lanza shot his way into a school that most thought was secure.

The consensus Monday among Maine school administrators was that safety is an ongoing discussion that intensifies -- appropriately -- when tragedy strikes.

"You always try to balance being an open community institution against the tragic reality that not all who come to school are going to do good," said Augusta Superintendent Connie Brown.

Sonayia Shepherd, a senior analyst with the Georgia-based campus security firm Safe Havens International, said it's important for school administrators to take a step back and not "jump to solutions."

"Generally, schools are a safe place to be and are certainly much safer now than even a decade ago," she said.

Maine schools have taken some steps to ensure increased safety.

In the last year, Paolucci said, locks were installed on all interior classroom doors in Yarmouth's schools. The department also received a federal grant to pay for an audit to identify security weaknesses and suggest changes. That work continues.

Biddeford Superintendent Jeremy Ray said he has gotten emails about safety in the last few days. His staff plans to re-examine its facilities and emergency response plans immediately.

He said it's important that the current focus on students' safety doesn't fade as time passes.

"What we do today should be no different from what we do three weeks from now," Ray said.

Last year, Biddeford implemented a system for lockdowns in which each teacher, after securing the classroom, slides a sheet of paper under their door into the hallway to alert police to the status of their students. Green means everyone is safe. Red means they need help.

Another common security update in Maine's public schools has been locking all exterior doors and having a buzz-through system at the main door.

Any visitor who comes to the front entrance of a school must press a button. Someone inside the school then must press another button to unlock the door. Augusta has such a system in its schools, Brown said.

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