SNOW HILL — One month after the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, the Worcester County Board of Education outlined the status of security in schools and discussed how improvements might be made in the months to come.
Several parents in the audience, however, called on the board to implement more security measures immediately no matter the cost.
“We are willing to fund raise,” said Jeanne Zender, vice president of the Showell Elementary School (SES) PTA. “We don’t want this to happen in two months; we want this to happen now. I understand there’s a process, but let’s speed it up.”
Superintendent of Schools Dr. Jerry Wilson explained Tuesday that while the board feels Worcester schools are safe, officials do see paths to make schools even safer.
“One of the things which is occurring as a result of Sandy Hook is many of what we considered the best practices are being re-evaluated in light of this most recent tragedy,” he said.
Wilson briefly outlined where security measures for schools stand today. All visitors to schools are required to sign-in at the office and everyone, faculty or visitor, has to wear identification, either a faculty photo ID or a guest pass with the day’s date. Once the school day starts, doors are locked with the exception of the main entrance.
“Schools control the access into the school facility and lock exterior doors as appropriate,” said Wilson. “The best practice is to lock all exterior doors after the opening bell except for the front entrance.”
Security cameras monitor that entrance and the school’s exteriors, including any trailers on site. Every school also has access to an emergency radio system that provides immediate contact with 911.
Additionally, Wilson confirmed law enforcement has become more active around schools since Sandy Hook.
“All schools continue to see an increased and unannounced police presence,” he said.
Also, any students that display “emotional instability” are referred to mental health experts for support and to make sure that they are not a danger to themselves or others. All school security will be evaluated by an independent law enforcement agency as well, according to Wilson.
There are other avenues for increased security in the near future, noted Wilson, and all potential changes, including the possibility of adding armed school resource officers or capital improvements to schools, are under review by the board’s security committee.
“I believe we’re asking the right questions,” he said.
Parents like Zender thanked the board for what’s been done so far but demanded further measures.
“I don’t understand why you wouldn’t want to lock the front door,” said Shanea Grosso, also a member of the SES PTA.
Access is a major factor in stopping a shooter, she continued, pointing out that if every door in a school were locked there would be more obstacles for an intruder. In the same vein, Grosso told the school board she had serious concerns with the number of portable classrooms currently outside of the school building at SES. These portables, she argued, are far too easy to access.
In response to her concerns, Assistant Superintendent for Administration Louis Taylor told Grosso that the board is considering locking the front door to schools during operating hours but is not ready to make that decision.
“There are pros and cons about locking the front door,” he said.
While a locked building is harder for an intruder to enter, it is equally difficult for a parent who needs immediate access to their student. Because of staff limitations, Taylor explained that no faculty member can be tapped to watch the doors of schools all day every day, making access a difficult question.
Also related to budget, Taylor said that the only way to really eliminate portable classrooms is to expand the schools they orbit. SES is one such school currently in line for renovations, possibly within the next few years. But, in the meantime, Taylor stressed that the board also focuses safety efforts on portables, which he said make up 36 percent of classrooms nationwide. All trailers are monitored by security camera, he reminded the audience.
Jackie Cutlip, a member of the SES PTA, was unsatisfied by the idea that the budget should impact security.
“It shouldn’t be about the money,” she argued. “It should be about safety.”
Law enforcement is a reassuring presence in schools, said Cutlip, but not a consistent one.
“It is seriously comforting to see them in the morning and then the bell rings and they drive away,” she said. “And as a parent it is just really hard to watch them drive away.”
Both Cutlip and Grosso suggested full-time armed security in schools, such as school resource officers.
The board said it would take the parent’s concerns and offers to fundraise to heart, but Taylor pointed out that the primary funding provider for Worcester schools is the county.
“County government will be provided with some options as we move forward,” Taylor said, adding the school’s security committee has been meeting roughly twice per week for a month.
Board President Bob Rothermel said that, as a parent, he especially identified with the fears listed during the meeting. However, he said that the board plans on weighing any changes to security carefully.
“We’re not just giving lip-service to this but we’re also not going to take a kneejerk reaction,” he said.