AUGUSTA, Maine — Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen on Tuesday asked a school safety group to study state laws and Department of Education policies with an eye toward identifying areas where there could be improvements.
On Monday, Bowen asked local school districts to review their crisis response plans and make improvements where necessary, but his directive to the Maine Schools Emergency Preparedness Resource Team Tuesday calls for a broader look, according to DOE spokesman David Connerty-Marin. The team includes education officials, law enforcement officers and state and local emergency management agency directors.
“This group meets once a month and they are routinely reviewing opportunities for improving emergency management for schools,” said Connerty-Marin. “We have good systems in place, but it seemed like in the wake of Friday’s shootings like a good time to do a top-to-bottom review. The commissioner asked them to look at what can be done in both the short and long terms.”
Issues will include everything from what security features are included when schools are built — such as double doors and video cameras — to training of teachers and administrators. Connerty-Marin said Bowen also wants to increase the number of schools that conduct lockdown drills in addition to fire evacuation drills. Whatever ideas the group identifies could become bills for the Legislature to consider when it convenes in January.
Every Maine school district is required to have emergency management plans — including a protocol for lockdowns — and to update them annually. Schools also must have plans for how to communicate with concerned parents during an emergency.
Dwane Hubert, director of the Maine Emergency Management Agency’s Division of Mitigation Preparedness and Recovery, said the organization urges school districts to work closely with local police and rescue organizations because plans should be tailored to local circumstances.
“What we advocate for is an all-hazards plan which includes all security-type issues,” said Hubert. “Schools should walk through those in the form of an exercise to test the plan. The reason that is so important is because there’s always going to be a period of time between when an event occurs and when first responders can get there. Once the first responders get there, they have protocols that they can use, but a school needs to have a well-rehearsed plan and practice that plan.”
Richard Durost, executive director of the Maine Principals Association, said Tuesday that his organization was flooded with calls over the weekend and early this week from teachers and administrators who were seeking advice.
He said because school security is an issue dealt with by local school boards, there is a wide range of measures in place across Maine. Durost said most districts already conduct lockdown drills and that some keep all exterior doors locked during the school day and require visitors to buzz in to the main office when they arrive. But even in the wake of one of the nation’s most deadly school shootings, he said there is a balance to be struck.
“I think there’s a real attempt to balance the need for security while trying to make sure schools are a welcoming place for parents, students and community members,” said Durost. “You do everything you can without turning your school into a prison with steel bars. What has happened since last Friday is that everyone sits back and reminds themselves what they do have for a policy.”
Durost said in his experience, most lockdown plans involve keeping children in locked classrooms or wherever they are when tragedy strikes as opposed to trying to evacuate them.
“Most classrooms do not have an outside door to exit from,” said Durost. “While something is going on and somebody has a gun, you don’t want anyone going out into the hallways. You try to keep the kids as quiet and safe as you can in the safest part of the room, and not to leave the room until you know it’s safe. I would suggest that’s a rationale for locking the door and pulling the shades.”
Durost said schools could increase the number of its school resource officers, who typically are hired in partnerships between schools and local police departments. Though Durost didn’t have data on how many Maine schools have resource officers, he said the number has decreased since the 1990s when many of those positions had been funded temporarily by federal grants. Today, many of the state’s school resource officers focus their efforts on students older than the ones who perished Friday in Connecticut.
“I don’t know that a school resource officer could have prevented this from happening,” said Durost. “I’m not aware of any elementary schools in Maine that have a full-time resource officer.”
He said that while students, parents, teachers and administrators across Maine are saddened by Friday’s shootings, schools in general remain safe places for kids.
“As tragic as this is, we do need to remind ourselves that this is still a relatively rare occurrence,” he said. “Happening even once is too many times, but I think that most days everywhere, particularly in Maine, our kids are as safe as could be when we send them off to a public school in the morning.
“As a teacher or principal, you can never care for a student in exactly the same way that the parent does, but I would guess that they care for those children almost as much.”