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Jim Kenyon: School Safety Is on Dresden’s Radar

  • Valley News columnist Jim Kenyon in West Lebanon, N.H., on September 15, 2016. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.


Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Jay Badams is all too familiar with school shootings. During his time as a school administrator in and around Erie, Pa., there were two.

An altercation in the stands at a high school basketball game in January 2009 ended with a 15-year-old boy firing a gun and wounding an adult bystander. In May 2013, a teacher’s aide was shot four times by a former domestic partner outside an Erie elementary school while she was on break. She survived.

Who would have thought Badams’ experience in dealing with school security issues would be put to use in idyllic Hanover and Norwich?

But less than nine months after taking over as superintendent of the Dresden School District, Badams is helping students, teachers, parents and community members come to grips with the potential for school violence, and how to address threats.

Last Tuesday morning, a school shooting threat was delivered via Instagram to Hanover High students. After school officials and police promptly alerted the public to the threat, some parents pulled their kids out of class. Hanover police officers stood guard in the school throughout the day.

With other law enforcement agencies, including the FBI, quickly joined the investigation, the threat was traced to a 14-year-old girl in Ontario, Canada. She was arrested without incident in her hometown of Brantford, Ontario. Why Hanover High was picked is still something of a mystery.

While social media threats are virtually impossible to prevent, Badams talked at a community forum on Monday evening about improving security measures at Hanover and Norwich schools.

Badams, who scheduled the forum before the shooting threat, planned to devote the evening entirely to bullying, which in the cyber age has become a national epidemic. But in light of last week’s incident, he expanded the discussion to include school shootings. As he pointed out, the two often are connected.

Badams, 53, strikes me as a down-to-earth school leader who clearly understands that he’s no longer in Erie. School security measures that were readily accepted — and easier to justify — in a Rust Belt city with just under 100,000 residents wouldn’t necessarily fly in a wealthy New England college town.

Erie, where Badams spent nearly 20 years, the last seven as superintendent, has 13,000 students in 18 schools. The district has its own police force, consisting of five officers who spend much of their time combating gang-related activities.

At Monday’s forum, which attracted 50 or so parents and community members, Badams raised the possibility of putting an armed police officer in Hanover High. For years, U.S. schools, including some in the Upper Valley, have employed so-called school resource officers. (Apparently, school officials and police think that by calling a cop a “resource,” they can fool the public into going along with the idea.)

But “being pretty liberal communities,” Hanover and Norwich have long resisted a daily police presence at the high school, said Hanover Town Manager Julia Griffin, who attended the forum. Residents “perceive (the officers) as police patrolling the hallways with a drug-sniffing dog,” she told me. That perception is not too far from reality in some communities.

A number of years ago, I wrote about an incident in Hartford that showed what can go wrong when cops are given carte blanche inside school buildings.

In Hartford, three middle school boys were involved in a cafeteria scuffle. No one required medical treatment, but it seems some bullying had taken place.

The boys were called into the Principal’s Office to give their versions of what happened and why. The principal handed over his report to the school cop. Shortly thereafter, parents were ordered to bring their sons to Hartford police headquarters. From there, two of the boys were thrown into the state’s juvenile justice system.

I mentioned the Hartford incident to Badams. “I’m not necessarily a proponent of police being in schools,” he said. “It works well in some places, and some places it doesn’t.”

After 17 people, including 14 teens, were killed in the Parkland, Fla., school shooting, the Trump administration and Congress are sure to throw dollars at communities to beef up school security. They certainly don’t want to do anything meaningful — i.e., a ban on semiautomatic assault-style rifles — that would rile up the National Rifle Association and its followers. Meanwhile, the New Hampshire Legislature is no better. It won’t allow school districts to ban guns on school property.

But Badams assured the audience that he would wait until people were “less emotional” before recommending any new security measures. “These are decisions I don’t feel are mine to make, certainly not alone,” he said. “But we owe it to ourselves to have the conversation.”

Badams acknowledged that locking school entrances and adding security cameras in hallways could change the culture of the two towns’ schools. Keeping doors locked has the effect of rolling up the welcome mat for parents. And surveillance cameras, which are commonplace in many public settings these days, give schools a Big-Brother-is-watching-you feel.

Badams did tell the audience one thing that made me feel better. “I’m absolutely against arming teachers and principals,” he said.

Schools are no place for guns. Even when in the hands of police.