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School culture in the balance as Yarmouth tightens security

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School culture in the balance as Yarmouth tightens security

YARMOUTH — The look and feel of town schools could change significantly as new equipment and procedures are implemented as part of a security overhaul.

Following receipt of a Department of Justice grant and community forums on safety, interim Superintendent Ron Barker laid out a plan that adds new safety equipment and procedures. Changes include enhanced surveillance and security systems, increased police presence in schools, controlled building access and clear and defined security procedures for emergencies.

The new security measures come in the wake of the Dec. 14, 2012, Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings in Newtown, Conn., where a gunman killed 20 students and six adults.

Barker said the action on school security in Yarmouth began well before the Newtown tragedy.

"I don't want people to think Sandy Hook happened and now, bang, this is all happening," he said in his office Monday. He said the department was planning and hosting a series of three public forums on school safety just before the shooting occurred.

"It's just what happened in Connecticut expedited it," Barker said.

The School Department, in coordination with the Yarmouth Police Department, applied for a $100,000 Community Oriented Policing Services, or COPS, grant early in 2012 to help pay for upgraded security systems and plans at the school.

They spent about $60,000 of that grant for a "vulnerability assessment" conducted by a Georgia-based security firm, Safe Havens International, last year.

That study led to the recommendations to update the school security system to include new key and entry systems that keep track of who enters and leaves buildings, interior door locks, making police officers more visible in schools, staff emergency training, emergency evacuation kits, and lock-down drills, which are new to the school system.

They also plan an announcement system that can be used during emergencies, or to announce things like school cancellations, via an automated voice or text message.

The School Department has also submitted an application for a $28,000 state Department of Homeland Security grant to help pay for more security equipment, including panic buttons, exterior cameras for the high school, two-way radios and remote control entry. A decision on that application won't likely be known until June, Barker said.

"When you look at (the list of security changes), you think 'oh my god, they're in a panic,'" he said. "But this has been a thoughtful group effort. The administrators have been excellent; the teachers and staff have been excellent; the community has been involved. ...It's going to be a little shift for some, an inconvenience for some. But the bottom line is we're doing this to keep the kids safe."

One of the most visible changes will be buzzer and camera systems installed at school entrance doors to monitor who is coming into a school. Secretaries will permit people to enter after viewing them remotely through the camera and unlocking the door, Barker said.

The changes will be gradual, he said; some will start at Harrison Middle School as early as spring break, followed by more implementation over the summer. Some of the measures will be tested at single schools to see how they work, before becoming system-wide.

During upcoming service days, Barker said faculty and staff will likely be trained on lock-down drills and other safety procedures.

School Committee Chairwoman Abby Diggins said despite valid concerns about security and surveillance negatively impacting the open environment of schools, officials want to be realistic about danger. She said the school "culture will survive."

"Everyone knows it's clear after Newtown that it can happen anywhere. Hopefully we're immune, but you have to be realistic," Diggins said. "There's two ways people can look at this: One, people could say it's a real bummer. The other side is that it makes us feel a lot safer. Clearly it's an issue people are quite concerned about and we want to make them feel we've done everything we can to make our kids safe."

Yarmouth High School Principal Ted Hall said it's important to find the appropriate balance between tightening security and the working and learning needs of faculty and students. He said it starts with communication.

"I think for me what's very important is that you engage students and faculty around what you do with this stuff and it's clear what intent is and how everything is going to be used," Hall said. "The way to do that is be open with students and faculty, have a conversation and don't spring anything on anybody. Even if people don't agree, they understand you've gone through a fair process."

The high school is preparing for the possibility of installing cameras in a rear parking lot and issuing individual-specific entry cards to allow seniors who have privileges to access the building after leaving campus during their study periods.

Hall said while it's not out of the realm of possibility that these new devices could also be used for disciplinary action, not just safety, that is not the intent. 

"With cameras in the parking lot, if we need to review something that happened, then we have that ability," he said. "If we had intended to catch kids doing things in parking lot, we would have (installed cameras) a long time ago. Having said that, I can't say we're never going to use them for disciplinary action."

Other area schools systems, including School Administrative District 51, Falmouth and Cape Elizabeth have begun or plan to institute similar security measures in response to the Newtown shooting.

"Newtown was the stimulus," said SAD 51 Superintendent Robert Hasson, who oversaw the installation of security measures at Greely High School, including cameras and entry systems.

In response to the Newtown killings, the Obama Administration rolled out a $150 million request in January to help hire more police officers, counselors and institute other security needs. Most of the money would be funneled through the Education and Justice departments, with funding contingent on schools agreeing to Justice Department-approved training of police officers for how to work in schools.

Barker said he supports bringing in a permanent police officer to the schools, but the School Committee has yet to have a conversation about hiring one.

"We would need to clearly define the role," he said. "I don't see them as walking around with dogs ready to go. I see them as a resource. I don't see them as a punitive type of person, I see them as a compliment to the school."

While some of the national and statewide conversation about safety in schools has shifted to the debate over whether teachers should be armed, Barker said that's not something he would support.

"Teachers have a tough enough job as it is," he said. "Arming people is not something I've brought into the conversation."

Barker, who will complete his time as superintendent in June, compared the psychological impact of lock-down drills to the normalization of air-raid drills for nuclear war that he experienced when he was a student, where students were told to seek shelter under their desks.

"It's one of those things you wish you never have to do," he said.

Will Graff can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or wgraff@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @W_C_Graff.