Elementary school students across the region will find tighter security this fall, ranging from new surveillance cameras to more locked doors, as school districts rethink the safety of their youngest students following the devastating shootings last winter in Newtown, Conn.
Of 20 school districts surveyed in Greater Boston, 19 have added new security equipment or procedures at the elementary level since a gunman entered Sandy Hook Elementary School and killed 20 students and six educators in December.
In Salem, all schools are getting panic buttons, so staff will have a direct line to police in case of emergency; in Walpole, all elementary schools will get six security cameras; and in the Groton-Dunstable Regional system, staff will be trained in a wider array of responses in case a gunman enters a school.
Anthony Bent, who has run several school districts in suburban Boston, said that although each system is approaching security differently from a technical perspective, they all seem to share a new understanding of the issues involved.
“The real story here is that there’s been a sea change in the culture of seriousness,” said Bent, now interim superintendent at Groton-Dunstable. “It was building. . . I think Sandy Hook may have been the tipping point.”
No one at the federal or state level has ordered schools to tighten security since Newtown — every school district has responded in its own way to the concerns of its parents, students, and teachers.
And the changes vary. Of the 20 area districts, at least three are instituting staff identification badges; five are locking more doors — interior, exterior, or both; and six are adding or upgrading security cameras.
Tom Scott, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents, said his group would like to see some standardization, and has made that clear on Beacon Hill. After Sandy Hook, it became obvious that there is wide variation in security measures from district to district and even school to school, he said.
“So having a standard approach — at least a set of guidelines to follow — would be helpful,” said Scott.
There are several bills pending in the Massachusetts Legislature that deal with school safety and security, but nothing new has been passed. Before Newtown, school districts were already required to file evacuation and medical emergency response plans, and to update them regularly.
Meanwhile, local school systems are tackling the problem on their own in myriad ways.
In Framingham, where a front-door system was already in place, officials decided to upgrade other exterior door locks so that teachers could easily get in and out during recess, said Superintendent Stacy Scott. Framingham also added some teacher training.
Foxborough is adding $112,000 worth of security cameras at its five schools. Superintendent Debra L. Spinelli said the changes weren’t specifically because of Sandy Hook but the tragedy added urgency to the request.
In Braintree, officials reviewed crisis plans with police and made some minor changes after Newtown, according to Superintendent Maureen Murray. But beyond that, a key change, she said, had to do with vigilance. Front entrances were already locked, with a video and buzzer system in place, but attitudes were different.
“People took a closer look at who was standing at the door and questioned them a little more,” said Murray.
Winchester will see all the elementary schools locked with a buzzer and video system. Some schools had the system before, but Sandy Hook sped up plans already in place to make the practice consistent, according to Superintendent William McAlduff.
Medford already had security cameras in all its schools but upgraded them after Sandy Hook. Burlington Superintendent Eric Conti said elementary schools are getting updated classroom door locks and other features to help block entry to classrooms.
Walpole Town Meeting voted in May to approve cameras for all schools, despite protests from high school students concerned about privacy.
Administrators had been asking for them for about five years, but the Sandy Hook tragedy “accelerated the approval,” said Superintendent Lincoln Lynch, who added that he hopes to have the cameras installed before school starts.
“I think Newtown moved the security camera request up to the top of the list,” said Lynch. “We felt we wanted to give the first responders a leg up when it came to responding to certain locations within buildings, so they could get to the problem area quicker.”
But to the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, the proliferation of surveillance cameras is a worrisome trend, said Kade Crockford, director of its Technology for Liberty project, which promotes using technology in ways that protect privacy.
“It’s teaching children that they don’t have any right to privacy,” she said of the widespread use of cameras. “I think we should be very careful about not only the message it sends to students and teachers, but also what kind of society we’re creating when we are constantly monitoring each other.”
Surveillance cameras won’t prevent mass murder, Crockford asserted. However, she did praise efforts such as restricting access through buzzers and the like to keep out people who shouldn’t be in a school.
Locking elementary school doors was standard policy even before the Newtown tragedy in 17 of the 20 districts surveyed by the Globe; the other three followed afterward.
Sandy Hook had locked its doors, but the gunman shot through glass to enter. Still, local school officials say a secure entryway is an important deterrent, whether an intruder is armed or not.
“Staff was feeling they needed to feel safe in their workplace,” said Joe Russo, assistant superintendent for elementary education in Newton, which tightened its policy after Newtown. “We wanted to address that for them and the students.”
The district also heard from plenty of parents, who created a Facebook page and online petition to push for locking up after the Sandy Hook shooting.
But Newton is holding the line on its tradition of using schools for elections, despite concerns raised by parents and staff about the number of strangers coming to schools on polling days.
The administration responded by reviewing voter entrances, and, in some cases, moving entrances closer to polling stations, said Russo. Where that can’t be done, additional police officers will be hired to help direct people.
Framingham’sSuperintendent StacyScott said Sandy Hook prompted the district to move polling places out of all but one school.
The Peabody School Committee is hoping to move elections out of all schools, said Brandi Carpenter, a board member who has been lobbying for the change for years. In addition to security concerns, she said, election days can create parking problems and restrict where students can be on campus.
“Times have changed,” she said, “and our schools really need to focus on being schools, focus on education. Parents are a little uneasy with the whole doors wide open.”
Carpenter said the next step is a joint meeting with the City Council to figure out a smooth transition.
Some of the most important security measures that schools can take are hard to quantify, according to Ken Trump, president of National School Safety and Security Services, a private company that provides consulting to districts around the country.
“It’s easy to point out to parents a new locked door,” he said. “It’s a lot harder to point out some of the even more important things: training your staff, having your crisis teams meet, and diversifying drills.”
Some systems are turning to ALICE, a training program offered by a Texas-based company that promotes alternatives to staying put when a gunman enters a school.
ALICE calls for alerting law enforcement and implementing a lockdown in response to an armed attacker, which is common practice. But it also trains students and teachers to consider other options, such as evacuating or, controversially, throwing objects at a shooter.
Groton-Dunstable Regional will implement parts of the ALICE protocol this school year at all grade levels, said Karen Tuomi, coordinator of safety and security for the district, a new position created after Sandy Hook.
Teachers and students will have some training in ways to thwart an attacker as a last resort, if there are no other, safer options, she said.
“It’s an option that they’re going to be given,” Tuomi said. “We’re not telling anybody that they have to do anything.”
Tuomi said that to her, evacuation training is the most important part of the company’s program.
“To me the key point of ALICE is getting the information of an event as it’s happening, the real time information, to the staff and the teachers in the buildings so that they then have the ability to respond,” she said.
Meanwhile, some area school districts are keeping security in mind as they design new buildings.
Plans for Newton’s new Angier Elementary School initially called for kindergarten classrooms on the ground floor, to make access easier for the young students. After Sandy Hook, the plans were revised, and all classrooms were moved to the building’s second and third floors.
It is also possible that school construction projects will have new security-related requirements in the future.
The Massachusetts School Building Authority formed a working group to discuss potential changes.
“It is something we are looking at strongly,” said Matt Donovan, chief operating officer for the authority. “And if there are ways of making changes, we’re definitely going to take a look at it.”