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School districts tighten security after Connecticut killings

Nearly one month after the Connecticut school shooting, several local districts have put new security measures in place, including locked front doors and tighter visitor sign-in policies, and launched reviews of their safety procedures.

Area officials say they have been working closely with local police departments and staff members to come up with the best policies to protect students and teachers in the wake of the Dec. 14 tragedy in which 20 children and six adults were killed.

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“We’re taking it seriously, but we’re mindful of the human factor and not increasing the anxiety of our students,’’ said Weston Superintendent Cheryl Maloney.

In Weston, all school doors were previously locked except front doors. Maloney said those doors are now locked but the district has yet to install buzzers or cameras. Members of the office staff, she said, are responsible for answering the door until a new system can be installed.

Natick has also started locking the front doors at its schools, while Newton, Sudbury, and the Ayer-Shirley Regional district have plans in the works. Acton is studying the option. Needham has completed an upgrade of security at the town’s schools that includes a buzzer and surveillance system and locked front doors,

In Weston, Maloney said there has been mixed reaction among parents to the changes. “They preferred the more welcoming front door,’’ she said.

Maloney said the district is considering a swipe-card system for the doors, but it will take time to go through the bidding process to buy the equipment and have it installed. “We will continue with that plan and may accelerate it,’’ she said.

Maloney said the district is also looking at hiring a consultant to review its practices and see whether any additional changes are necessary. She said they have been more vigilant about visitor passes, and having parents wait in the lobby for students.

Natick Superintendent Peter Sanchioni said that before the Newtown shooting, just one of the district’s eight schools had a camera and buzzer system. During the winter break, locks and buzzers were installed at all schools, he said.

“It’s another safety measure,’’ Sanchioni said. “It gives a greater sense of security, and we want to make the schools as safe as possible.’’

Sanchioni said the district is also working with Natick police deto review safety policies. He said one idea the district is considering is training staff on a fight-and-flight response rather than a lockdown in the event of an emergency.

“We’re going to evaluate it,’’ he said. “It’s something that’s on our radar to learn about.’’

The Ayer-Shirley Regional School District moved up an early-release day this month in an effort to accelerate staff safety training. In a letter to parents on Dec. 21, Superintendent Carl Mock said school officials started working with police in the fall to improve their emergency response procedures, and had planned a review session for Jan. 31. In the wake of the shooting in Newtown, the meeting was moved up to Jan. 7. In addition, Mock said, the district is seeking to install a locked entrance at the Page Hilltop School in Ayer.

“All of these are important steps toward ensuring the safety and well-being of our students and staff, but we have more work to do,’’ Mock stated.

Ayer resident Diane Lawton Angers, whose 4-year-old daughter attends preschool at the Page Hilltop School, said she’s happy the district is making changes but would have preferred an announcement the day after the shooting. Angers said she was nervous about sending her daughter back to school the following Monday because no changes had taken place or were in the works.

“I’m glad they’re being proactive, but I would have appreciated some better communication to ease my mind,’’ she said.

Sudbury officials are also moving forward with plans to improve security. In a letter to parents dated Jan. 5, Superintendent Anne Wilson said the district has been working with the police on changes, which include more stringent visitor sign-in policies.

“Some of the enhancements will be quite visible, while others, though no less important, may not be discernible,’’ she wrote. “Over the past two weeks we have explored available options and discussed these options with district principals and Sudbury police, and we are now working to obtain enhanced security devices at each school.’’

The letter also said that the district is looking to hire a security consultant.

Newton officials recently announced plans to install buzzer and camera systems in the city’s elementary schools that will enable the buildings to be locked while classes are in session.

“While parents and visitors may still be able to enter during the school day, they will have to be allowed in after using the buzzer and being identified by school staff,’’ Superintendent David Fleishman wrote in a letter to parents.

Fleishman said district officials will continue to assess safety and security procedures in the coming weeks.

The Needham district started upgrading security last spring at each of its elementary and middle schools to include a buzzer and surveillance system, said Superintendent Daniel Gutekanst. He said work at the last two of seven schools was completed after last month’s shooting, and the front doors at each building are now locked.

“This is one step in trying to secure the perimeter,’’ he said.

The superintendent said school officials continue to meet with police to review safety protocols. While “hardware’’ changes like buzzers are important, he said, the “software’’ of human interaction between teachers, counselors, students, and parents in the school community is the key to maintaining a safe environment.

Acton-Boxborough Regional’s superintendent, Steve Mills, is leading a new safety task force to review all policies, protocols, and procedures related to school safety. He said the district does not lock the front doors of its schools, a practice that will be reviewed by the task force. He said the group will report to the School Committee by March.

“We are being thoughtful and deliberate,’’ he said. “There is no rush to judgment.’’

Jennifer Fenn Lefferts can be reached at jflefferts@ ­yahoo.com
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