Maine schools re-examine crisis plans in wake of fatal shootings in Connecticut

Posted Dec. 17, 2012, at 7:57 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — The fatal shootings at an elementary school in Connecticut on Friday have prompted many school districts in Maine to take a fresh look at their security procedures, but exactly what changes those discussions might bring about remain to be seen.

On Monday, the Maine Department of Education asked local school districts to review their crisis response plans, suggesting that more schools add lockdown drills to the fire drills that have gone on for generations.

Department spokesman David Connerty-Marin said Monday that the Maine Schools Emergency Preparedness Resource Team, a group of education and crisis experts, will meet Tuesday in Augusta. Even though the meeting was scheduled before Friday’s massacre, Connerty-Marin said the shootings will undoubtedly take center stage.

“We’ve been having conversations lately about updating the rule about lockdown drills,” said Connerty-Marin. “There’s nothing in our requirements for lockdown drills.”

Some school districts, including those in Bangor and the Bath area, already perform lockdown drills, though Connerty-Marin couldn’t say how many schools do it because school security is largely dealt with at the local level.

“School safety is a concern of ours all the time,” Bangor Schools Superintendent Betsy Webb said Monday afternoon. “But when you have horrific tragedies such as this, it makes you reflect on whether you’re doing everything you can.”

Webb said each of Bangor’s 10 schools — including the high school, two schools for grades six through eight, two for grades four through five, and five for kindergartners through third-graders — keep their doors locked, with buzzer and intercom systems.

Webb said her school district has a “very positive working relationship” with Bangor police and fire departments. The district also holds periodic drills to test emergency response, and police agencies sometimes use Bangor schools as staging grounds for drills of their own during school vacations, which allows police to become familiar with the layout of the schools, Webb said.

The school department has a pair of school resource officers from Bangor Police Department, employee badges, background checks of volunteers and video surveillance at its schools. Webb said the system has invested in security upgrades through the years for its facilities, most of which are between 40 and 100 years old.

The school district regularly updates its emergency plan and will take a close look at it again in the wake of the Connecticut shootings, but Webb said she isn’t sure exactly what changes or adjustments might be made.

“We want to review our safety procedures again and use this as an opportunity for reflection,” Webb said.

Riverside RSU 26, which comprises Glenburn, Orono and Veazie schools, also will be examining its security measures.

“Overall, we have a pretty sound emergency response plan, but there are some technological improvements we can make,” Superintendent Douglas Smith said, adding that he planned to meet with the district’s administrative team and that the school board will discuss its options during a meeting on Wednesday.

Smith said Glenburn School has the most sophisticated security, with a buzzer system to enter the school and surveillance cameras that can be reviewed by administrators and the deputy sheriff. Veazie and Orono schools lack the advanced surveillance system, but have the advantage of being located close to their respective police stations.

Smith said security procedures at each school would be carefully reviewed, and that local law enforcement agencies also would be involved in the process.

“Our administrators and staff have always taken their responsibilities very seriously with respect to school safety, but this tragedy has heightened our awareness of what could happen even with strict vigilance,” Smith said.

In Regional School Unit 1 in the Bath area, Superintendent Patrick Manuel posted a message on the district’s Web page.

“This horrific tragedy reminds us of the importance of reviewing safety protocols and working together for the well-being of children and staff,” wrote Manuel. “Certainly in this day and age, we can never be absolutely protected against all circumstances, but we have established safety measures in each of our buildings to minimize the likelihood that our students will be exposed to harm or threats of violence.”

Manuel said the district reviews its emergency protocols every year, including requiring that schools practice evacuations, lockdowns and other scenarios. But he said the responsibility of keeping schools safe rests with everyone.

“To be vigilant, we must all pay attention to visitors and strangers who come to our schools and in our neighborhoods,” he wrote. “It is important for each of us to be reminded to report any suspicious behavior to school authorities, trusted adults or the police via 911.”

Manuel said schools followed a typical schedule on Monday but would have counselors on hand for any students who need them.

“Staff members will be cognizant of the fact that students will react in different ways, and we will be ready to assist students who may appear distressed in any way,” he wrote.

Maine’s 13 Catholic schools also plan to review security policies, according to Sister Rosemary Donohue, superintendent of Maine Catholic schools.

“Our faculties and staffs periodically review our safety protocols among themselves, with the students and with the parents. The recent tragedy provides us with another opportunity to review and renew our commitment to safety,” she said in an email Monday. “I have every confidence that our faculties, staffs, volunteers and students are committed to safety in our Maine Catholic Schools.”

According to Maine law, school boards are required to review their emergency management plans yearly in consultation with local emergency and public safety officials. The law requires districts to make their plans available to the Department of Education and the public, including designating roles for teachers and administrators in emergencies and having a strategy to communicate with parents. But there is little in the law in the way of specific requirements for crisis management.

Pat Hinckley, a school facilities director for the Department of Education, said that in general, the DOE and most school departments leave decisions about crisis plans to law enforcement agencies and the Maine Emergency Management Agency.

“The protocols have been designed by national experts and passed on to local emergency management professionals,” wrote Hinckley in response to questions emailed by the Bangor Daily News. “Given the unique needs and resources in each community, the Maine DOE does not make decisions about how schools are run. … If a school were to ask about emergency preparedness, we would direct them to MEMA and local law enforcement.”

MEMA officials did not return a call from the BDN seeking comment Monday.

Several superintendents stressed that staff and administrators at the Connecticut school did everything right and had a solid emergency management plan, but that still wasn’t enough to prevent someone who was bent on committing violence.

The Brunswick School Department also posted a message to parents, reminding them that a horrific tragedy like the one in Connecticut could happen “at any time and at any place.”

“Our schools are designed to be inviting, warm, and accepting places, not fortresses,” Brunswick Superintendent Paul Perzanoski wrote in a statement on the department’s website. “The school lockdown procedures implemented at Sandy Hook Elementary School … definitely saved a number of lives.”

“If a person wants to and has the tools to, they can do great damage,” RSU 39 Superintendent Franklin McElwain said Monday.

The five schools in RSU 39, which icomprises Caribou, Limestone and Stockholm, are in the process of vetting their emergency response plans, according to McElwain. In recent years, the schools have installed security cameras and made other changes to increase safety for students and teachers.

“I think schools are still pretty safe places,” McElwain said, adding that the district would review its policies and security measures and “give due consideration to stepping them up another notch.”

“This is a very dramatic, horrific incident, and we all worry about the implications here at home,” he said.

Like many districts, Bangor and Brunswick attempted to maintain a normal routine in the wake of the Connecticut shootings.

“It is important that we resume as much normalcy and routine as possible as students return to school to provide the structure and reassurances they need to feel safe and comfortable,” wrote Perzanoski. “We are a strong school community, and we should use this terrible tragedy to mobilize and draw us together for the sake of our school and community.”

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