Massachusetts schools review security after Connecticut shootings

Safety measures assessed

Charlestown, MA - 12/14/12 - Boston School Superintendent Dr. Carol R. Johnson visits the Warren Prescott Elementary School in Charlestown to speak with parents at dismissal time regarding today's horrific school shooting at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT. - (Barry Chin/Globe Staff), Section: Metro, Reporter: Billy Baker, Topic: 15charlestownphoto.
Superintendent Carol R. Johnson visited the WarrenPrescott K-8 School to address parents’ concerns. (Barry Chin / Globe Staff)
The Boston Globe

Schools across Massachusetts will be reviewing and tightening security plans and procedures over the next few weeks, as officials attempt to prevent the kind of mass shooting that occurred Friday at a Connecticut elementary school.

Yet even as school officials step up security, education specialists say they know there is only so much they can do: driven individuals will find ways to get around the measures.

Often the perpetrator is someone tied to the school, rather than a stranger.

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In Newtown, Conn., it was the adult son of a teacher at the school who killed 20 children and six adults. At Virginia Tech in 2007 — the nation’s worst school shooting, which left 32 victims dead — it was a student. And at Columbine High School in Colorado in 1999, two students executed their deadly plan.

“I don’t think there is a perfect way of preventing something like [the Newtown shootings] from happening; that is the saddest part of this story,” said Paul Andrews, a former superintendent who is director of professional development and government services for the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents.

“Guns are too accessible,” he said. “That is a bottom-line issue.”

But he stressed that schools will be as vigilant as they can in protecting children and that administrators will meet with police to tighten security. One topic that could emerge is whether to keep classroom doors locked.

In Weston, Superintendent Cheryl Maloney spoke with the police chief and reviewed the district’s security policy. She also reminded principals about lock-down procedures.

In Framingham, Superintendent Stacy L. Scott said he asked all principals to send parents a note reminding them of safety protocols. He also said the town is updating its school security, installing cameras and automated doors to the buildings. Visitors at all schools now have to be buzzed in during the school day, Scott said.

“It’s been an ongoing concern,” Scott said. “We have to be conscientious about keeping children safe.”

Hundreds of schools attempted to assure parents their children are safe by sending out e-mails or notices reminding parents of security measures. In Boston, where police increased patrols around schools, Superintendent Carol R. Johnson swung by the Warren-Prescott K-8 School in Charlestown to talk to parents at dismissal.

“We want their children to not be fearful of coming to school, and we’re worried that the children may absorb too much of the media coverage,” Johnson said.

In West Roxbury, Eileen Nash, principal of the Beethoven-Ohrenberger K-8, went outside at dismissal to address concerns of parents. She did so even as she tried processing the reality of a shooting that claimed so many children.

“It’s really sadness and this overwhelming sense of responsibility to keep children safe,” Nash said. “These parents entrust kids to us. We have them for 6½ hours a day.”

Schools have faced a delicate balancing act as they ramp up security while trying to maintain buildings that are open and welcoming to parents, particularly in elementary schools where parents often come and go during the day.

A locked front door to a building, equipped with a buzzer and camera, can send a signal to parents that they are not welcome, and because of that, some schools keep their front door unlocked.

But other schools see value in locking entryways so they know when someone wants to come in, and some parents see it as an unfortunate necessity.

A state law enacted a year after the Columbine killings requires all schools to develop evacuation plans and procedures to lock down classrooms and entire schools in the event of a fire, hazardous storm, or other disasters that can cause serious bodily harm.

Each year, schools must do dry runs of their plans with students and revise them as necessary.

The state also has bolstered laws to prevent bullying in recognition that such episodes can lead to violent endings.

School officials in some communities are contemplating a more aggressive and controversial approach: teaching staff and students to actively resist an armed intruder. Canton has trained staff, but is holding off on training students after School Committee members raised concerns.

In a letter to parents Friday, Needham Superintendent Daniel Gutekanst underscored the limits of any security plan.

“Of course we can never guarantee that nothing would ever happen in one of our schools or in the community,” Gutekanst wrote. “What we can do is be planful, vigilant, and proactive, particularly when it comes to our children’s safety.”