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Local schools reexamine safety procedures

Conn. shooting prompts close look at facilities, procedures

Students ended their school day at the Beethoven School in the West Roxbury Monday. Many schools decided to lock front doors that were previously left open.

John Blanding/Globe staff

Students ended their school day at the Beethoven School in the West Roxbury Monday. Many schools decided to lock front doors that were previously left open.

Schools that had often welcomed parents and visitors with open front doors locked them Monday as several Boston-area superintendents said they planned to reconsider their safety protocols or accelerate plans to install buzzers and cameras in response to the mass shooting at a Connecticut elementary school.

In suburban communities such as Hingham, Wellesley, Natick, Winchester, Medford, and Weston, the desire to reassure anxious parents and students won out over the traditional treatment of school buildings as open community centers. Boston schools also stepped up security.

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Weston schools, which until Monday had left their front doors open, locked them for most of the day. At Weston High School, the main entrance was open, but school staff members were in the lobby monitoring visitors.

“It seemed like the prudent thing to do,” said Weston’s superintendent, Cheryl Maloney.

Weston schools will keep the doors locked this week and continue the practice when students return to school after the holiday break, Maloney said.

In coming weeks, Weston school officials will also consult security experts, parents, and staff about what safety tools are appropriate for the community, Maloney said.

“What we want to be sure of is that we are very careful in moving forward,” she said. “We want to increase security but we don’t want to raise anxiety.”

‘I think people understand that safety is job number one. That’s going to mean some changes in practice.’

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At Hingham’s South Elementary School, all side doors remained locked as students entered the building at 8:30 a.m. Monday.

The doors will remain locked at all times, said Mary Connolly, South’s principal. Visitors will also have to state their business before being buzzed into the school, she said.

In Wellesley, security varies among the different school buildings, said Superintendent David ­Lussier. Newer buildings have been equipped with buzzers and cameras, he said, but most of the buildings were locked Monday.

The school district has been in the middle of upgrading security at all the schools, but now those purchases will be accelerated and, Lussier said, completed by the end of this school year, in light of the Connecticut shooting.

“I think people understand that safety is job number one,” he said. “That’s going to mean some changes in practice.”

Governor Deval Patrick has decided to leave it to local districts to deal with any issues that arise in the aftermath of the shootings, from reviewing and tightening security measures to providing counselors, said Paul Reville, the state’s education secretary.

Districts are looking at such measures as installing cameras, upgrading lock systems, and equipping more staff with walkie-talkies, said JC Considine, a spokesman for the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

“We will be exploring this with public safety and other state agencies and will keep you informed,” Mitchell Chester, the state commissioner of elementary and secondary education, wrote in a memo to school district leaders Monday.

Currently, some districts have metal detectors and tight security; others keep their doors open.

At Brockton’s Champion High School, the city’s alternative high school, the front door is typically locked, but officials are spending $16,000 to install locks on all classroom doors.

Several districts have contacted the state in recent days about grants available for additional measures.

Lexington’s superintendent, Paul Ash, said schools in his district have been locking the doors 15 minutes after the start of school for the past two years, after receiving a $100,000 grant from the US Department of Education’s Readiness and Emergency Management for Schools program.

But Ash said schools are not fortresses, and they are not designed to stop someone who is prepared to die. The gunman in Newtown, Conn. shot his way into the building, even though the doors were locked, according to news accounts.

“What was really heartbreaking about what we saw in Newtown is it looks like they did everything right,” Ash said. “You could lock down your building, but if a person has a high-enough-powered weapon, they can blow a hole right through the glass.”

The locks may not have stopped the gunman, but it may have served as an additional barrier that alerted school officials and prevented more children and teachers from being killed, said Emily ­Norton, a parent of two students at Horace Mann Elementary School in Newton.

Newton has a tradition of parents walking in and out of school buildings, and only after 9/11 did the district close side and back doors. On Monday, school leaders offered additional counseling and watched how children were handling the news, but none of the front doors were locked, Superintendent David Fleishman said.

Police are reviewing Newton’s school safety protocols to ensure that they are updated, but the issue of locked buildings and buzzers and cameras at the doors will have to be discussed as a community, Fleishman said.

“After there’s an immediate tragedy, there’s a desire to do something quickly,” he said. “But we’re going to be thoughtful and vigilant. I think people need to be aware of the tradeoffs. . . . There are human tradeoffs, cultural tradeoffs, financial tradeoffs.”

The question of whether Newton schools should have additional security or be locked sparked a ­robust debate this past weekend on the city’s parent listserve.

Norton said that although parents may be used to walking into school whenever they want to, if ­experts believe that locked doors are safer, parents will adjust. “There was a culture of not taking your shoes off at the airport; now there is,” she said.

Michelle Ciurea, a parent of a seventh- and an 11th-grader in Newton schools, said in an e-mail that she has wrestled with the balance between safety and anxiety.

She is not convinced that some of these additional measures would keep students completely safe and be worth the cost of creating a fortress out of a school. Mass shootings at schools are still rare, she said.

“In the name of pragmatism and safety, I’ll bow down in the end, I guess,” Ciurea said. “But I need stronger evidence that bowing down has brought me a real and significant improvement in safety, not merely a feel-good illusion of it.”

James Vaznis and Katheleen Conti of the Globe staff and Globe correspondents Jessica Bartlett and Brock Parker contributed to this report. Deirdre Fernandes can be reached at deirdre.fernandes@globe.com.
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