2013-02-01 / Front Page

Visitors to schools will soon need to be buzzed in

Jack Flagler
Staff Writer

Schools in South Portland and Cape Elizabeth plan to tighten security in their respective districts in response to local and national concern following the school shooting in Newtown, Conn.

The shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School on Dec. 16 shook parents, school officials and others around the country after a gunman forced entry to the school and killed 26 people, including 20 children.

In response to parent concern locally, all South Portland and Cape Elizabeth schools plan to keep all entrances locked during the school day. The main entrance to each school will be equipped with a buzzer and security camera. After a visitor enters the vestibule and explains the nature of his or her trip, a school staff member of the main office will be able to buzz that person in.

Currently, visitors are required to sign in at each school in both districts, but the main entrance to most of the schools remains unlocked throughout the school day. After the tighter security measures go into effect, the only time those main doors will be unlocked is for a brief period in the morning when students arrive.

Memorial Middle School in South Portland has the security measures in place that will likely be mirrored in the city’s five elementary schools, Mahoney Middle School and the high school. The plans for the new high school, scheduled for completion in 2015, already had the measures in place, but the board decided the current facility should have the same system until the switch.

At a South Portland School Board workshop Jan. 23, Superintendent Suzanne Godin said nothing can be done to deny an armed criminal determined to gain access to a school from entering, but the schools can perform drills and increase security to make sure students and staff are prepared for an emergency situation.

“The reality is that (the new security measures) will make the schools safe until something happens somewhere else. That’s the sad part of this,” Godin said.

“We can’t prevent this from happening, we can be prepared and take precautions. Those precautions would not have helped at Sandy Hook, and that’s what we need to be aware of.”

Cape Elizabeth Superintendent Meredith Nadeau delivered a similar message to the town’s school board at its Jan. 8 meeting.

“Schools are never going to be 100 percent secure. I think the idea is, there are ways to limit access and to help control access,” Nadeau told the board.

Some Cape Elizabeth board members said they are concerned about the new security measures affecting the openness of Cape’s schools to visitors. Nadeau hopes the changes won’t have that effect.

“In the long run, it will feel slightly less convenient, but we hope it won’t feel less welcoming because we certainly value having parents and volunteers in our schools,” she said.

School Board Chairman John Christie said the challenge facing the school’s emergency management team is to preserve the welcoming atmosphere of the schools while also keeping the facilities safe. The team includes representatives from the schools and the town, including Police Chief Neil Williams.

The team meets monthly to discuss safety precautions for the schools, and first discussed the “buzz-in” security measures this fall. Nadeau said the plans were put on hold until the school district knew the full impact of the state’s education curtailment on Cape Elizabeth.

That curtailment cut $200,000 from Cape Elizabeth’s school budget, but the costs were absorbed by a contingency line item and other savings. Because of those savings, Nadeau said the schools are ready to move forward to have the security system finished when students return from February vacation.

South Portland school officials also hope to have security measures installed this spring, although the school board did not set an exact timeline.

In South Portland, the funding for the plan will not come from the school’s operating budget. Rather, Godin said the $40,000 cost to install the new system will be taken out of the school’s elementary capital improvement reserve, funds that are leftover from money allocated to upgrade the city’s five elementary schools in the early 2000s.

The city also has an emergency management department that includes police and fire department staff. That team has run “tabletop” discussions explaining theoretical scenarios with members of the fire department, police, teachers and staff.

The group has also worked with Weaponcraft, a Portland-based firearms training organization that has run active shooter lockdown drills in the schools to prepare school officials for an emergency situation. Godin said she believes the last of those drills was held during the spring 2011 school year.

Godin said she is confident South Portland schools are prepared for emergency situations, but like Nadeau, she reiterated that no amount of preparedness can guarantee an emergency will be prevented.

“(The schools) were secure the day before Sandy Hook. They became obsolete the day Sandy Hook happened,” Godin said.

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