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Upper Valley Schools Improve Security With Help From State Grants

  • Susan Schroeter, co-principal of Richards Elementary School, makes an announcement over the loud speaker of the main office in Newport, N.H., on Friday, Aug. 24, 2018. Richards Elementary recently improved their safety measures through bullet proof glass and a new door that will require visitors to pass through the office before entering the building. (Valley News - August Frank) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Security cameras show various parts inside and outside of Richards Elementary school in Newport, N.H., on Thursday, Aug. 23, 2018. While the school has had no issues with security, their recently installed safety measures are a continuation in improving safety overall. (Valley News - August Frank) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • A sign on the new door to the main building informs parents and visitors to check in at Richards Elementary School in Newport, N.H., on Thursday, Aug. 23, 2018. The school's new safety measures were paid for with an infrastructure grant, with homeland security paying for 80 percent and the school district paying for 20 percent. (Valley News - August Frank) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



Valley News Staff Writer
Saturday, August 25, 2018

Newport — For several years, visitors entering Richards Elementary School pressed a buzzer to alert the receptionist of their presence before she observed them through a window and buzzed them in through a locked door.

From there, they were supposed to step into the front office to pick up a visitors pass, but there was nothing preventing them from heading directly toward classrooms and students.

Now, visitors will still have to be buzzed in, but they’ll come face-to-face with the receptionist in a secure space before they are granted access to the hallways.

Along with new bulletproof glass, it’s a subtle but significant improvement that Newport has made, one of a number of safety upgrades school districts throughout the Upper Valley are undertaking because of growing concerns about school shootings and other threats of violence.

Jessica Packard, who had worked as the Richards receptionist and now is an administrative assistant there, said recently that the improvement is a good one, and that the old system made her uneasy at times.

She sometimes had to follow people down the hallways when they neglected to check in at the main office after being buzzed into the school.

“If anybody entered with a big bag or if they skirted around me, it definitely was alarming,” Packard said.

Most of the changes around the Upper Valley will mimic those in Newport, in the sense that few people will actually notice them — which is the point, many superintendents and school board members said. Some of the upgrades include the installation of surveillance cameras, adding or updating of keyless entry systems that control who has access to a building and, in at least one case, the tinting of windows.

“We live in an age when we have to take these sorts of precautions,” said Jay Badams, the superintendent of Hanover-Norwich schools. “We don’t want people to feel fearful based on a response to the tragedy that has led to a push for these grants, but we want to do everything we can to make sure our students are safe.”

The Process

Over the past several months, Vermont Gov. Phil Scott and New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu awarded millions of dollars to schools across the Twin States to undertake several projects, including ones that will tighten security and improve school safety.

Almost 240 schools in Vermont were awarded facility grants totaling $4 million and even more schools in New Hampshire were awarded $28.8 million, money that also went to fund fiber connections and life-safety deficiencies in schools in that state.

“Getting these projects started quickly will help students, staff and administrators focus on learning,” Scott said in a release announcing the grant awards earlier this month. Another $1 million in Vermont also is available to support the development of emergency plans, training and safety exercises.

Concerns and calls to tighten security and make schools safer followed a series of threats and school shootings, including one at a high school in Parkland, Fla., in February that killed 17 people. The shootings also have reignited conversations about gun laws in the Twin States.

Sununu, a Republican, continues to support a state law that prohibits towns and schools from banning adults with guns from public property, while Scott, also a Republican, signed laws to ban bump stocks, expand background checks and raise the age to purchase a firearm to 21 after law enforcement officials said they had thwarted a potential mass shooting at a high school in Fair Haven, Vt., just days after the Parkland massacre.

Ahead of the grant funding awards, most — if not all — schools in both states had assessments conducted that identified security and safety weakness areas within school buildings. Schools then applied for the funding from a list of options with that knowledge in mind.

Some schools already have completed their projects, while other schools plan to have their upgrades ready in the fall.

The money was welcomed by school officials and has helped districts push ahead with projects that they wouldn’t have been able to tackle for years down the road, if at all.

In Lebanon, officials roughly a decade ago purchased radios that staff use to communicate with one another. They are outdated and at times don’t work as they should.

Lebanon School Business Administrator Tim Ball recalled a time at a fire drill when it would be “hit or miss” whether administrators could actually communicate with one another.

Thankfully, it was just a drill.

The glitches should be rectified through a new Internet-based communication system, which will cost about $120,000. (The districts all have to pay a 20 percent match.)

“The radios were on our radar but I don’t know when we would have been able to do them because the ones we have are better than nothing,” Ball said. “It’s a big expense.”

Lebanon also will be able to reinforce the glass at the front entrances of all of its schools. (Eventually, officials in Lebanon hope to reconfigure the front entrances through a modernization plan now being discussed by the School Board after voters rejected a $28.9 million upgrade to schools throughout the city in March.)

Workers plan to install 3M Safety & Security Window Film over the glass, a product that can “slow down an intruder” by making the glass harder to break, Ball said.

“Seconds, minutes matter,” Ball said

Important Balancing Act

The safety and security film is clear, so no one will even know it is there, Ball explained.

At Richards in Newport, district officials this summer installed bulletproof glass in the entryway, a change students and visitors are unlikely to notice.

Surveillance cameras may also blend in and are unlikely to interrupt their learning.

Unobtrusive changes were popular among the projects that districts are undertaking.

“No school wants to put barbed wire around it and put a guard in a watch tower,” said Thetford Academy Head of School Bill Bugg.

Therefore, striking a balance between the right amount of security measures and an inviting learning environment is key, he said.

Over the past several years at Thetford, Bugg has used an “incremental approach” to making updates and also has focused attention on security improvements that don’t necessarily cost anything.

Thetford, like many schools, has moved away from having multiple doors unlocked on campus at any one time, a measure that funnels all visitors through a main door.

Thetford is one of several schools in the Valley that will use grant funding ($20,250) to install or add additional video cameras. There are several benefits to the technology, Bugg said.

Perhaps the greatest value comes in the form of the cameras being a “deterrent for anybody thinking about doing anything,” Bugg said.

Administrators also have the benefit of reviewing the footage, or showing it to first responders in the event that there was a situation unfolding inside the school in real time.

The Mascoma Valley Regional School District also plans to add cameras at various schools, as does the Windsor Southeast Supervisory Union. District officials also increased the number of cameras at Richard’s Elementary in Newport.

“Nothing is going to look different on the first day of school. Students might notice another camera or two but the feel of the schools will be the same,” Mascoma Interim Superintendent Amanda Isabelle said. “It’s not going to be like a prison. We want to have very welcoming schools, but we also want to keep our children safe so that is very much the balance.”

Norwich School Board member Thomas Candon, whose children attend Marion Cross School and Hanover High School, also stressed the importance of the balancing act.

“I personally think it is a sad state that we are where we are with what has been going on nationally with school shootings and threats, but it is what we are seeing,” Candon said. “We want to make our schools are as safe and secure as possible but we want them to be as welcoming as they can be.”

Roughly one-third of today’s parents fear for their child’s safety in school, a sharp increase from 2013, according to a poll by Phi Delta Kappa, an educators’ association.

Hanover schools also will enhance their video surveillance and implement technology that will allow staff to have more control over who has access to school buildings, money Candon said he felt would be well spent.

Badams, the Hanover-Norwich superintendent, was hesitant to go into specifics about what the access control would entail because it is a security measure. The two-state Dresden district received $102,000 from New Hampshire to go toward $122,500 in projects, and it received $24,873 from Vermont toward projects estimated to cost about $32,000.

Hartford Superintendent Tom DeBalsi and School Board Chairman Kevin Christie also declined to shed much light on what improvements would be made in their school district with the $140,000 the district received.

“I just don’t feel comfortable getting into specifics about what we do to enhance our security,” DeBalsi said via email. “I can say we made huge advancements to how we monitor visitors to our campus. I can also say we will enhance our building access security in every building in the district with the grant money.”

In Windsor, Superintendent David Baker plans to put tinted covers on windows at schools in Weathersfield, West Windsor and Hartland. The film inhibits people from looking inside the classroom windows from the exterior.

The district also will provide “Go Bags,” a type of emergency kit, at each of the schools. The school has the ability to mix and match items but the bags would include things like water and food supplies, a flashlight, a first aid kit and a battery-powered or hand crank radio.

Many schools in the Upper Valley, including Hartford, have police officers serving as a school resource officers inside their schools and have for some time. District officials say they see a great benefit in the police-school partnership.

“I watch the way kids react in public with their parents and with the officers and I have seen a physical change in behavior — a positive one,” Christie, of Hartford, said.

“The more interactions we can have in advance ... makes for a safer learning environment and creates a more supportive culture,” Hartford Police Chief Phil Kasten said.

Hanover doesn’t currently have an school resource officer.

“But I think we are at a point now where we can have that conversation,” Badams said.

Hanover High School fell victim to a social media threat last school year, prompting scores of students to leave school early, but fortunately, no one was injured.

On that day, the Hanover Police Department had officers on scene before school even started, Badams said.

Similarly in Newport, quick actions by parents, police and administrators meant that threats were foiled before students even arrived at school last year, SAU 43 Superintendent Cindy Gallagher said.

“We had it solved because somebody said something,” Gallagher said. “Speak up.”

Guns in Schools

Meanwhile, U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos recently said she is considering allowing states to use federal grant money to buy guns for schools. At least one Upper Valley teacher had trouble finding words when asked about calls to arm teachers, but eventually found some.

“It’s appalling. I don’t know a single teacher, not a single one, who thinks being armed is a good idea,” said Deb Nelson, a veteran English and social studies teacher at Lebanon High School. “When we prepare to be a teacher, we are thinking about opening students’ minds, we are thinking about exciting them about science or literature or math … we are thinking about joy. It is not just counterintuitive. It’s counter-everything.”

Nelson, who is active in Democratic politics in the Upper Valley, said she feels safe within the walls of her school, but added that the school shootings across the nation weighs on her.

“I don’t want to be on the other side of an incident,” Nelson said. “I don’t want to be in a position where I am going to a memorial service because there has been a shooting. At the rate that it happens now, it has to be a part of what you think about. You just have to.”

Hanover High School teacher Hal Bourne said he also feels safe at work, despite the culture nationally and last school year’s social media threat involving a firearm.

“While our Instagram incident last year was unsettling, our school works to develop a sense of community and belonging for students, and I feel safe here,” Bourne said. “I am confident our administrators and district officials are sufficiently addressing the community’s safety needs.”

A central theme among Upper Valley School administrators in making schools safer was communication on various levels.

“We hope that having deep relationship with kids will be a strong deterrent from having anything happen,” Bugg, at Thetford, said.

Speaking to parents and students about what the proper response should be in a crisis situation before a crisis happens is important, said Badams, who previously served as the superintendent of a 11,500-student school district in Erie, Penn.

“In a situation when parents rush to the scene or when students are on their phones and text messages are flying, it can create more complications,” he said.

Isabelle, at Mascoma, said there should be an increased focus on mental health resources and social-emotional curriculum.

Ball, at Lebanon, couldn’t pinpoint what he thought would make schools safer, and he said he wasn’t quite sure where the line should be drawn.

Ball is a father of four children who attend Upper Valley schools.

“I don’t know if I want them walking through metal detectors,” Ball said. “I think we are doing as much as we (reasonably) can. You don’t want a kid to walk around scared.”

Jordan Cuddemi can be reached at jcuddemi@vnews.com or 603-727-3248.