December 16. 2012 2:23AM

Are the schools in NH safe? A qualified yes

New Hampshire Sunday News

People visit a small memorial set up near Sandy Hook Elementary School on Saturday, in Newtown, Conn. (Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press/MCT)
Locked doors, buzz-in systems for visitors, video surveillance, emergency plans and lockdown drills: After previous school shootings in other states, most New Hampshire schools have implemented such measures to try to keep students and faculty safe.

But after a gunman forced his way into a Connecticut elementary school Friday morning and slaughtered 26 people, including 20 small children, many parents and community leaders here are asking: Are New Hampshire schools safe?

Gregg Champlin is the school emergency planning specialist for the state division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management and a national FEMA instructor on school safety. He said he'd put most schools in New Hampshire up against any in the country when it comes to security.

And he said the same is true for child care centers here.

Mark Joyce, executive director of New Hampshire School Administrators Association agreed. "From my experience and direct observation, schools are among the safest places to be," he said.

As part of his job, Joyce visits schools across the state and makes it a practice to test doors or remove his visitor's badge to see whether anyone notices.

"I'm pleased to say that in our studies, we saw no areas that were unsecured and at no point were we allowed to access a building unchallenged," he said.

However, while every school is required by state law to have an emergency response plan, there's a lot of variation in how often those plans may be updated or practiced, according to Champlin.

And while the great majority of schools have security measures in place, Champlin said, there are some in rural communities that have no such protections. "They don't lock the door, they have no buzz-in systems.

"I call it the ostrich syndrome," he said.

After what happened in Newtown, Conn., on Friday, Champlin said, "I'm sure that some of those are going to be addressing the lack of security - I would hope.

"I'm sure that there's going to be lessons learned for all of us across the country, unfortunately, from this event," he said.

Champlin recalled a 2006 shooting at an Amish school in rural Pennsylvania, during which a milk delivery man stormed a one-room schoolhouse and shot 10 young girls, killing five. "My view is simply if it can happen in an Amish school, it could happen anywhere," he said.

And after Friday's tragedy, many school leaders are looking at what, if anything, they can do to make their schools safer.

Kirk Beitler, principal of Raymond High School, acknowledged there are flaws in even the best systems.

The doors to his school are locked once the school day begins, and visitors have to be buzzed in. There's a school resource officer for the three Raymond schools, and cameras throughout the building.

Still, he said, "The first thing in the morning, the school is open because we have kids that drive to school and we have buses that drop off and parents that drop off." It's the same after the school day ends, when the town recreation department uses the building for activities.

Given what happened in Connecticut, Beitler said, he expects school leaders will meet with police to discuss what could improve security.

The massacre was all he could think about during a run Saturday morning, Beitler said. "I have some conversation starters with staff and students, but I don't have all the answers," he said.

Mike Jette is principal at Merrimack Valley High School in Penacook where "we've done all the physical safety things," he said.

But he said, "If somebody's really intent on getting around them, they're going to find a way around that."

If someone were knocking on a back door, for instance, it's likely some student would open it, he said. "Those physical things go only so far as the human vulnerability to just help somebody out and let someone in."

Jette said he expects his school's staff will review safety procedures on Monday. And he said, "I think we've got to have some open conversations with our students again, just to drive home the point that if you see something that doesn't look right, hear something that doesn't sound right, let us know. No report's too small, and we can do our best to respond to that."

Patrick Boodey is principal at Woodman Park School in Dover, which has about 600 students, from preschool through fourth grade. That's the same age group as that of the students enrolled at Sandy Hook Elementary School, where Friday's massacre occurred.

Boodey said his school holds monthly training sessions to update its security protocols. "We have security cameras, locked doors, background checks," he said.

He added, however: "We have to find a balance between an open and inviting open-to-the-public place versus student and staff safety.

"It's really, really hard to go over every scenario. The choice is: Do you go with a gated school like gated communities?

"Ultimately, you have to have good faith in society at some point."

But that faith was shaken by what happened in Newtown, Boodey said. "There wasn't a dry eye in America yesterday, I'm sure.

"Kudos to the staffs and the parents who were picking up their children, making a normal day for them as much as possible. I'm sure when the kids went to bed, they had some moments. It absolutely rocks you to the core."

He and other school officials began answering calls and emails from parents about school security after news of the shootings broke Friday. Only later that night did some of his control slip.

"I'm not going to lie to you, my eyes were wet going home for sure," Boodey said.

On Monday, he expects school leaders will review security protocols to see whether any changes are needed. And he wonders whether parents and other visitors may be a little more understanding about some of the measures that are in place now.

"I'm hoping that parents won't give us a hard time as often when we have the doors locked and the cameras and we make them sign out their children," he said. "We do get push-back. Maybe we'll get less of that."

Jette agreed there has to be a balance when it comes to school security. "The last thing we want is an unsafe school, but on the flip side, we can't live in fear, too," he said.

"We can't get up every day and go to school paranoid that something like this is going to happen. Otherwise, it just incapacitates you," he said.

Assistant Safety Commissioner Earl Sweeney said the tragedy in Connecticut will likely cause parents and school officials to take a hard look at their security plans.

"I think every school has a plan. How good and how detailed depends on the school district's attitude on openness versus security and size of the school staff. You couldn't have a one-size-fits-all plan," he said.

Concord police have floor plans of the city's schools, so if they are responding to a shooter, they know where the exits are, Sweeney said. "Many of the bigger communities, like Manchester and Nashua, have those sorts of things as well," he said.

Justin Krieger is co-director of Next Charter School, which will open next fall in Derry. The school will have many security measures and require visitors to show photo IDs. "Certainly, it's inconvenient, but we feel like it will keep more kids safe," he said.

Krieger said safety has to come first. "We always think we are places of learning, but we're entrusted with people's most thoughtful and prized possession: their children. Those are things we have to be talking about before anything else."

Melanie Plenda and Nancy West contributed to this report.