School districts review lockdowns, security after Newtown tragedy

By Wayne E. Rivet

Staff Writer

Is our school safe?

In wake of the Newtown, Conn. tragedy, many area parents wondered what might happen if someone showed up at a local school, armed and possessing intentions of harming staff and students.

SAD 61 and SAD 72 superintendents quickly sent out letters on Monday, Dec. 17 to parents regarding their review of existing emergency policies, as well as evaluations conducted at area facilities to determine whether improvements are needed to improve security.

“I felt that it was important to communicate to staff and parents that while we felt that our schools were a safe environment for students and staff, we would immediately be reviewing all of our school buildings and procedures to ensure we were doing all we could reasonably do,” said SAD 72 Superintendent of Schools Gary MacDonald. “On the afternoon of the event in Connecticut, before we left for the weekend, we scheduled a meeting for the beginning of the week with a company who specializes in security solutions to help us review all of our buildings.”

MacDonald also contacted law enforcement agencies to involve them in the security discussions. Recommendations will be brought to the SAD 72 school board this month, as part of budget considerations.

SAD 61 Superintendent Kathleen Beecher had to deal with two matters — the Newtown shootings, as well as a rumor that a southern Maine school had been targeted for possible violence (State Police would report on Dec. 20 that, “We have chased baseless rumors throughout the past 24 hours and found no credible threat directed at any Maine school.”).

“For the letter that went out to all parents, guardians and staff members about the tragedy in Newtown, I felt the need to reassure families and staff members that we have an emergency response plan for each building in the district and that we practice those elements that we can such as evacuations, shelter-in-place and lockdowns regularly,” Supt. Beecher said. “In regard to the possible threat for last Friday (Dec. 21) toward high schools in Cumberland and York Counties, once we had the final word from Cumberland County and Bridgton law enforcement officials that there was no actual threat, I felt we needed to communicate that message to parents and staff members and details about the investigation. Both Bridgton Chief of Police Kevin Schofield and Cumberland County Sheriff Kevin Joyce were personally in contact with me, which I appreciated very much.”

School-district responses

As an educator, parent and grandparent, Gary MacDonald shared the public’s concern about making schools as safe as possible.

“Needless to say, this is a very difficult time, and one that unfortunately does not have any easy answer,” wrote Supt. MacDonald in a letter to parents. “We will continue to do all we can to make every child’s experiences in our schools as safe as possible.”

The letter, along with two articles — “A National Tragedy: Helping Children Cope” and “Talking to Children About Violence: Tips for Parents and Teachers” — were posted on the SAD 72 website.

Superintendent MacDonald pointed out to parents that over the years the school district worked with Fryeburg Police, the Maine State Police and the Oxford County Sheriff’s Department to develop comprehensive “Emergency Plans” for each district school.

SAD 72 has staged “simulated” fire, shelter-in-place and lockdown drills to test security procedures.

“We are in constant contact with law enforcement, and we are fortunate that we have such a positive and open line of communication,” wrote MacDonald. “Since Friday’s (Dec. 14) events, we have spoken with all the local law enforcement officials to again review our procedures and provide insights that would be helpful to us in this particular situation.”

Counselors were also made available to students upon their return to school on Dec. 17. MacDonald urged parents that if they noticed a “particular concern at home” to notify school officials so the child could receive some counseling.

Staff meetings were held Monday, Dec. 17, at which time emergency plans were reviewed.

“We have comprehensive emergency plans for every school. We will be increasing the number of ‘lockdown’ type drills when we come back from break,” MacDonald said. “Obviously, a situation like what happened in Connecticut makes the importance of these drills much more relevant.”

Some procedures “were tightened up” at SAD 72 schools following the Newtown shootings, MacDonald said. And, other changes are expected.

“Many of these changes will also impact parents and community members as they will potentially effect how ‘open’ the school is,” MacDonald said. “We will continue to attempt to find a balance between over-reacting and creating as safe of a learning environment for everyone as reasonable given all factors.  I expect it will create a discussion with various perspectives as we move forward.”

SAD 72 has experienced some “threatening” situations. A few years ago, State Police and the Sheriff’s Department raided a house in Lovell to apprehend two adults, who were being sought for various crimes, MacDonald recalled. One adult escaped the raid, and ultimately made his way to New Suncook Elementary School, off Route 5.

“He was apprehended after running through the school. In that case, all doors were locked except for the front door. Linda Dunlea (school secretary) immediately called for a lockdown, which worked very well and perhaps prevented a different outcome,” MacDonald said.

Whenever a “situation” occurs which MacDonald feels an explanation is needed to minimize misinformation and unnecessary worry for parents, a letter is sent.

In SAD 61, Supt. Beecher’s letter to parents outlined the district’s plan to review all emergency response policies, the staff and visitor identification policy, and whether any structural changes are needed to increase building security.

“Practicing for a crisis, requiring adults to wear identification, and keeping building doors locked are all procedures we use to insure safety in our buildings,” wrote Supt. Beecher. “We want to assure you that keeping the children that attend our schools and the staff members that work for our district safe is a top priority in SAD 61. We will continue to review and improve plans and details as we gain more information about any safety concerns.”

Staff and parents were asked to pass along any concerns they may have. Those concerns will be sent to the district’s Emergency Response Committee (ERC) for discussion and review. Beecher already forwarded “several e-mails with suggestions” for Andy Madura, director of Buildings, Transportation and Food Service in SAD 61, who leads the ERC.

Some SAD 61 schools presently use a “buzz-in system” to allow visitors into the facility.

“For those that do not presently have that capability, we have discussed the need with those particular building administrators. Mr. Madura has ordered the hardware, which should be installed this week, if possible,” Supt. Beecher said. “We have put in place other cautionary measures that I cannot go into detail on at the risk of exposing our plans.”

SAD 61 has also experienced some “threatening” situations in recent years.

“Without going into details, we have had schools go into lockdown mode because of potential threats over the last few years, and we have requested police assistance also,” Beecher said.

SAD 61 offered counseling for students shaken by the Connecticut shootings, and included website addresses to assist parents in talking with their children regarding the tragedy.

Please follow and like us: