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AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine’s education department is in the early stages of developing a clearinghouse for communities interested in enhancing the safety infrastructure and culture of their schools.
A 2014 report from two consulting groups Safe Havens International and PDT Architects recommended the state create a school safety center as part of an assessment of whether Maine’s schools would be prepared in the event of emergencies. It made a hierarchy of recommendations from locking exterior doors during classes to card readers for all staff.
Those kinds of centers are in 20 other states, according to the National Crime Prevention Council. By serving as a one-stop resource for schools, the study said a center could help schools use their resources to become safer in lieu of spending “billions of dollars in security upgrades” town by town in Maine’s decentralized K-12 education system.
The Maine Department of Education has hired retired state police Sgt. Jonathan Shapiro and former Falmouth school resource officer Robert Susi to bring the center to life with an initial focus on what districts can do now to make schools safer. They’re expected to issue a report to the Legislature about their work on Monday and prepare an initial work plan by mid-February.
The Bangor Daily News sat down with Shapiro and Susi to get a sense of what the center will do and what their work will entail. Shapiro’s answers have been edited for length and clarity.
What is a school safety center and how is it going to keep people safe?
A lot of states have realized that there’s a need for a delivery of services to get schools up to the preparedness that they need to be. There’s a challenge there in how you do that, and one mechanism is to create a school safety and security center, which is really like a one-stop shop for the delivery of resources, support and guidance.
We’re able to provide guidance technical support, resource support, policy procedure reviews and guidance. We’ll be able to answer questions if the schools find that they have a particular challenge they don’t know how to handle.
It’s really about helping local schools empower themselves to create a safe platform for the students and staff in that school. That’s what we’re striving for here in Maine — to be able to provide that level of support and assistance, so local school communities can make themselves as safe as possible.
How will you develop the center?
Right now, we’re just in the process of discussing how that’s really going to look in Maine. Maine is obviously a unique state — we have a largely rural state with some urbanization involved there. One size fits all is not going to work for the state of Maine. We also want to be extremely sensitive to local needs, and we want to meet schools where they’re at and bring them to where they need to be.
We will have emergency management at the federal, state, county and local level. We certainly want strong local involvement. A lot of communities have a local emergency management officer, and we’re blessed in Maine, where we have a robust county risk-management structure.
Schools have immediate needs right now while we’re in the process of designing this overarching infrastructure. If a school has a need, Rob can go out and meet with that school and meet with the local professionals and help that school get to where they need to be. That’s really a short-term fix, because clearly there’s a lot of buildings, over 600 school buildings in the state, I believe.
Is there anything about Maine that makes it unique when it comes to school safety?
Maine is really independent. We’re a local-control state. I think you have to take that into account when you’re making any plans. It’s a huge asset, and it’s something that we certainly want to work with and empower people at the lowest level.
Maine is also a safe state, in that people feel safe and secure largely in the state. That means it can also be a challenge, if everybody thinks it’s a very safe state, to get the attention on safety, generally, and particularly with schools.
One other thing about Maine that’s unique is its sense of community. That’s something we can capitalize on. We’re going to strive to make sure that every school has a program in place to ensure every child in that school feels welcome in their environment and has a strong relationship with at least one adult or more in the school.
Has Maine made any progress in improving school safety since the Safe Haven International study came out?
Over the last 20 years, all schools in the country have improved dramatically. There’s no secret of what level of risks there are out there. Everybody — not just schools but all the stakeholders involved with school safety and community safety — have stepped up to the plate on that.
Do you see your work as focusing on infrastructure or policies and practices?
Both. Every part of this really builds upon itself. So you can have the hardest target in the world, and still have safety threats in there if you have a weak community in that school. So you need to have a strong community in that school and a very healthy atmosphere in that school, and that is equally — if not more important — than having the physical structures and the mechanical structures for school safety.