Hermon panel digging into school security issues

Posted Feb. 12, 2013, at 11:22 p.m.

HERMON, Maine — Members of a committee charged with looking for ways to improve security at the town’s schools has made progress since its first meeting in January.

During a meeting Tuesday night — their second so far — members reported that they have gathered information about what other area schools have in place with regard to school resource officers.

They have met with law enforcement experts, who went over their security plans and offered suggestions for improvement. They also have identified possible funding sources and learned what resources are available, both in-house and from area medical, mental health, education and law enforcement professionals.

The community’s discussion about school security began shortly after the Dec. 14 shooting rampage at Sandy Hook Elementary School that left 27 people dead, most of them children.

Within days, Hermon businessman Randy Gardner and his wife, Laura, launched a petition calling for a permanent police presence — specifically, armed police officers at all three schools. Gardner also enlisted the help of his friend and fellow businessman, Barry Pottle.

“It happened in a small town about the size of Hermon and I’m sure that those folks never thought it would happen to them,” Gardner said last month when asked about his school security campaign. As he sees it, the in-school officers not only could serve as a deterrent to potential shooters but also could discourage other problems, including fights and drug abuse.

After meeting with Gardner and Pottle, Superintendent Patricia Duran formed a 12-member panel charged with exploring what Hermon can do to make its schools safer. While Gardner and Pottles’ proposal is receiving mixed reviews from residents, it remains under consideration, along with a range of other options.

Some steps already have been taken to that end. More security cameras have been installed and all three schools now are locked during the school day. Visitors aren’t allowed in until they have been identified and buzzed in. Photo IDs of all faculty and staff are being made and similar badges are being made for visitors.

Other security measures, however, are being kept confidential so that they won’t lose their effectiveness, Duran noted.

On Tuesday, Hermon High School Principal Brian Walsh said school officials met last week with personnel from the Penobscot County Sheriff’s Department, the Maine State Police, the State Fire Marshal’s Office, the Maine Warden Service, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the U.S. Marshal’s Service.

“We learned a lot in a short period of time,” Walsh said.

Among the points law enforcement officials made was that mental health programs and services “are the best intervention” when it comes to preventing a school shooting.

“In most of the in-school murders, [the shooters] were people who had conditions that could have been diagnosed early. Interventions could have been in place and in most cases, they have a connection to the school,” Walsh said.

Though he wasn’t prompted, the FBI agent offered his agency’s view on armed police in schools, Walsh said.

“The way the FBI looks at it, bringing rounds [of ammunition] into a school is not a good idea. He cautioned us on that. He said every round that you have in a school was a round that could be used,” Walsh said.

With regard to law enforcement response, “they mentioned that it doesn’t matter if they are federal, state or local — whoever’s in the area will respond in the event of an emergency call with an active shooter,” he said.

The meeting drew three community members — Gardner and his wife, Laura, and Patricia Adams Tate, the mother of two Hermon High School students.

“A couple of things that concern me is waning interest in the whole thing,” Gardner said during the meeting. “These things have a tendency to die. It goes off our radar and we move on to the next crises and we all have multiple crises.”

Duran, however, made assurances that would not happen.

“I don’t feel that as a School Department we can or will let it wane. I think this will stay on our administrative agenda forever. It has taken a great deal of my time over the past two months and I’ve learned a great deal, but what I’ve learned it’s that there’s a ton more that I need to learn. Nothing can take priority over making sure my kids are safe as we possibly can keep them.”

The group’s next meeting is set for Tuesday, Feb. 26, at the Hermon Odd Fellows Hall.

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