2013-02-22 / Front Page

Schools make security improvement plans

Advisory committee addresses health and safety issues
By Michael Kelley Staff Writer

As the 2012-2013 school year winds down, a group of town and school officials are hard at work to put security and emergency planning improvements in place for the start of the new school year in September.

In early January a new group, the Health, Safety and Security Advisory Committee, was formed to address health and safety issues around town shortly after the tragic school shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., December 14.

“In some ways, people think the Sandy Hook Elementary School tragedy was the prompt for schools like Scarborough to focus on the health, safety and security of students and staff,” said Scarborough School Superintendent George Entwistle, a member of the new committee. “But the fact is, we have been looking at that as long as I have been here and I know they have been doing that long before I arrived. It’s not a new discussion. It’s been in the forefront for a long time.”

The committee, which first met on Tuesday, Jan. 8, is made up of: representatives from Community Services; Town Council, Board of Education; school health and nutrition departments; as well as Police Chief Robert Moulton, Fire Chief Michael Thurlow, Town Manager Tom Hall, Assistant Superintendent JoAnne Sizemore, Scarborough Library Director Nancy Crowell, and education officials at the high school, middle school and primary schools.

Entwistle said at that initial meeting, committee members generated 27 topics to cover, with school safety and security the priority.

The topic of school safety, he said, was broken into three categories: building and campus security improvements; changing the behavior of students and adults in the schools and reviewing the schools’ comprehensive emergency plans.

Todd Jepson, the school district’s director of buildings, grounds and maintenance, said his biggest concern is access management and video surveillance.

“Right now we are looking at each school,” said Jepson, a member of the Health, Safety and Security Committee. “We are visiting the schools with representatives from each school, the police and fire chiefs, our IT department. We are doing an assessment about where our greatest risks are.”

Of particular concern, he said, are the primary school entrances, which lack a vestibule that separates the front door and the school hallways. Jepson said he is also looking into making certain doors in the school buildings only accessible with a keycard. The benefit there, he said, is a card can be deactivated if it is lost. Unlike a key, a keycard cannot be copied.

Aside from meeting with the Health, Safety and Security Committee members to discuss school safety, Jepson said he meets monthly with facility directors for South Portland, Cape Elizabeth, Gorham, Windham and Raymond schools to “keep abreast” of school security practices.

Entwistle said improved security is not as simple as locking the doors or adding new safety measures for people entering and exiting the schools.

“If people think it just takes a buzzer or security camera, they are mistaken,” Entwistle said. “The attitudes that people have and the awareness people have are important. Places like Sandy Hook had all the bells and whistles, but still had a tragedy happen there.”

Entwistle said some of the physical improvements, whatever they end up being, will come with a cost.

“We are making changes as we can. The biggest bulk of the money will be for physical enhancements. To modify some of the entrance areas in our K-2 schools — our neighborhood schools — we are talking about a big chunk of money.”

The cost of making the improvements, Entwistle said, will be included in the district’s annual Capital Improvement Projects budget.

Some schools nationwide have increased police presence in and around buildings, something Scarborough did in the days following the Sandy Hook Elementary School incident.

For years the police department has assigned officers, called school resource officers, to Scarborough High School and Scarborough Middle School. Moulton said police presence could be increased in Scarborough schools, but that request would have to come from the school district.

“There have been some discussion about doing something different with school resource officers, but that will be vetted through the budget process,” Moulton said.

While the review of school access and police presence gets underway, so too does that reassessment of the district’s emergency plans.

“We already have plans in place. The effort now is to ensure those plans are a totally comprehensive approach and that they are more than just a three-ring binder sitting on a shelf somewhere. The team is taking a look at how we implement (those plans),” Entwistle said.

“One of the things we are doing in Scarborough is trying to make sure this is a living, breathing document,” said Moulton, who sits on a state committee that reviews school emergency preparedness.

Entwistle said parents and community members have a right to be concerned about the safety of the town’s youngest generation.

“The unknown has happened and has readjusted, for all of us, the way we think of schools,” Entwistle said. “The fact of the matter is when children are in schools they are as safe as they can be. That remains the case.”

The way the committee is approaching these important issues, Entwistle said, is the right approach for the town.

“The anxiety is understandable, but the response is a very serious and concerted one,” Entwistle said. “I think the comprehensive approach bringing the schools and town together suits us best.”

Moulton agreed.

“This is the right approach. We aren’t doing any sort of knee jerk reaction. We are looking at this methodically,” he said. “This is not just a school issue, or a police issue. This is a community-wide issue.”

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