YARMOUTH — When students return to school on Tuesday, Sept. 3, there’s a good chance they won’t notice more than $134,000 in security enhancements at the town’s four public schools.
That’s partly the point.
“The schools have done a really nice job of increasing the safety, but not in a way that’s scary,” Yarmouth Elementary School Principal Betsy Lane said. “The kids may not notice anything different from last year.”
Over the summer, the School Department implemented several new measures to enhance security. Anyone entering the buildings during school hours will have to be “buzzed in,” all employees will wear ID badges on lanyards, video cameras will keep an eye on the buildings’ exteriors, and silent alarms are within arms’ reach of administrative staff. The schools will also continue conducting regular lock-down drills to prepare for any emergencies.
“A great deal of work was done,” interim Superintendent of Schools William Michaud said. “We now have much tighter security at the entrances of the schools.”
The upgrades were completed in the wake of the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., but not necessarily because of it. The district had already begun its research into improved security nearly a year before the Dec. 14, 2012, shooting that killed 20 students and six adults.
Earlier last year, the School Department and Yarmouth Police Department received a $50,000 Community Oriented Policing Services, or COPS, grant to help pay for upgraded security at the schools. About $9,000 of the grant was spent on a vulnerability assessment conducted by a Georgia-based security firm.
The study led to, among other things, the installation of interior door locks, better visibility of police officers in schools, staff emergency training, emergency evacuation kits, and an emergency announcement system via voice or text messaging.
Later, the district received a $6,500 state Department of Homeland Security grant to help pay for more security initiatives, including the panic buttons and exterior cameras, which were installed in the spring and summer.
In total, 42 percent of the security initiatives were covered by grants. The local share was $77,000.
The security measures are important in the modern age, but in Yarmouth – where the motto is “Our Latchstring Always Out” – there’s also a need to maintain the sense of openness and community that defines the town.
“You have to strike that balance of safety while also being welcoming to the public and the parents,” Michaud said. “There’s going to be a period of time while we try to strike that balance, but I think we’ll be able to do that.”
At Frank Harrison Middle School, where $11,500 in improvements were installed, the balance has already been struck, Principal Bruce Brann said. There, door buzzers were installed in April, so the school already had them in service for about two months during the last school year.
Brann described the transition in a single word.
“Seamless,” he said. “Our big concern was: When you start introducing these measures of safety, does it change your school culture? It didn’t change one bit. No change at all.”
At Yarmouth High School, part of the student population will be able to come and go throughout the school day without getting buzzed in. Seniors in good standing will have personal identification numbers that will allow them keyless entry into the building, Principal Ted Hall said. This will help maintain a long-running tradition of allowing seniors to leave school property during study halls and lunch.
“We felt that was important,” Hall said. “It’s a good stepping stone in terms of building independence. We didn’t want to give that up because we were installing a different kind of security system.”
Hall said it’s also important for students to realize that the exterior cameras are meant for security, not to pry into their business.
“We didn’t do any of this to mitigate students’ bad behavior. We didn’t have any of that behavior to mitigate,” he said.
The schools will also participate in twice yearly lock-down drills in coordination with the Police Department. Police Chief Michael Morrill, who was instrumental in the district’s security project, said all of the schools have held at least one drill.
Morrill said the first few drills were mostly geared toward getting the staff up to speed. As drills continue, the schools can dictate how realistic the drills should be, he said.
The second-, third- and fourth-graders at Yarmouth Elementary School, where $11,500 in security enhancements were installed, are sophisticated enough to handle the drills and the subject matter that they may conjure, Lane said.
“The children understand that we want to keep them as safe as possible,” she said. “They trust us.”
Despite the safety improvements, it’s still important for students to be wary of situations that don’t look or feel right, Hall said. The security measures, totalling $36,000 in the high school, aren’t an excuse for complacency or a guarantee of safety, he said.
Morrill echoed that assessment.
“You never let your guard down, but you feel a little more confident now that there are plans and policies in place,” he said. “We work toward reducing risk. Will we ever completely eliminate it? No.”
Brann acknowledged that similar security systems were in place at Sandy Hook, but were ultimately unable to stop the violence. Nonetheless, there’s little room to argue against their installation.
“In good conscience, we put these measures in place. The best hope is they never get tested,” he said. “The important thing is to get our students safe and still maintain the great Yarmouth culture that we have.”