Cape Elizabeth schools installing buzzer systems, other security measures

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CAPE ELIZABETH — Officials are looking to enhance school security with new buzzer systems at entrances, along with other security measures, including the possibility of employing police officers.

The new buzzer systems and procedure will require schools to lock their doors except during students’ arrival time in the morning. Front doors will be controlled with by the main office with a video monitor and intercom. District policy already requires secondary entrances to be locked.

Office staff would have discretion about allowing visitors access to the building.

The district is planning to have the entrance buzzers installed before students return from their February break.

Currently, any visitor can walk into schools, but they are required to sign in at the front desk and sign out when they leave.

Although the shooting in Newtown, Conn., last month didn’t prompt the new security measures, Superintendent of Schools Meredith Nadeau said, the tragedy pushed the conversation about school safety into the spotlight.

“I think (school security is) always a work in progress,” Nadeau said. “This typically happens behind the scenes, but because of Newtown, people are asking more questions and seeking information.”

The Emergency Management Team, a group of school and town officials that meets monthly to review safety at schools, has been planning the buzzer system at Cape Elizabeth schools since last fall, Nadeau said.

But last November the group decided to put the installation on hold, until they knew the extent of expected state budget cuts.

The district is still waiting on cost estimates for the buzzer system, Nadeau said.

Police Chief Neil Williams, who is on the emergency team, said this is a necessary step, especially for Cape Elizabeth Middle School, which does not have an entrance that allows staff to see who  is coming into the school. At Cape Elizabeth High School, visitors are visible from the front office. 

“When we look at something like that, the schools had their doors wide open, so to speak, and anybody could walk in,” Williams said.

With the new system, visitors will still be required to sign in at the main office.

In addition to the buzzers, other surveillance methods being considered include handheld communication devices for administrators, and employing guards at the schools, known as school resource officers, Williams said.

Cape Elizabeth has employed SROs in the past. Their use has been an ongoing question since they were cut due to state budget cuts, Nadeau said.

Several other school districts in Cumberland County have SROs, including Scarborough, South Portland, Cumberland, Falmouth and Portland, Williams said, noting that they are not at every school in those districts and are mainly focused on the high schools.

Nadeau said the new security measures are focused on prevention. Other measures, such as surveillance cameras or monitoring student social media that could invade student privacy, is not a priority right now, she said.

“It’s a reality that most schools have and are used to those security procedures,” Nadeau said, noting that crimes like kidnappings are much more common than shootings at schools. “I think, really, it’s been a reality for schools since Columbine, sadly,” referring to the Colorado high school shooting in 1999.

School Board Chairman John Christie said he supports the new security measures and doesn’t see them impacting the school culture.

“We think that the atmosphere is created by the attitude and the demeanor of teachers and administrators far more than what’s at the front door,” he said. “We’ve always welcomed the community, parents and volunteers and those folks will continue to play valuable and important role in our schools. I’m not worried about the atmosphere, I think were doing what’s prudent in putting in reasonable security measures to keep students safe.”

Christie said communication is key to developing a balanced approach to school security and surveillance.

“I think the way we do it is by having candid conversations among stakeholders, including the emergency management team using their expertise, and administrators and teachers, parents and community members,” he said. “As long as we have an open dialogue among all those stakeholders and revisit our policies and procedures from time to time is how we’ll strike the right balance.”

Will Graff can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter: @W_C_Graff.