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School safety in NH called balancing act

Special to the Sunday News

December 14. 2013 11:03PM

Londonderry schools have been equipped with new panic buttons that directly alert the town police, Concord High School has a new blue strobe-light warning system that flashes both in and outside of the building, and Nashua has installed Columbine locks in classrooms through the city's school district.

Throughout New Hampshire and the rest of the country, school districts have been auditing, assessing and upgrading security in response to the tragedy in Newtown, Conn., where, one year ago, 20 first-graders and six members of the Sandy Hook Elementary School staff were fatally shot by 20-year-old Adam Lanza.

According to Bloomberg News, annual spending on school security and safety measures is expected to increase from $2.7 billion to $4.9 billion by 2017.

Still, some security experts have cautioned that school safety is not a single-solution problem and technology and equipment upgrades alone are not enough to protect school communities.

"School security is a constant discussion for our administration, and our feeling is our policy is effective," said Milford Superintendent Robert Suprenant. "We are trying to balance safety with maintaining a school environment."

Striking that balance has been a concern for many educators and policymakers, including Nashua school officials, who have invested $2.4 million in security upgrades in the wake of Sandy Hook.

"We want to make sure that everyone feels safe, but at the same time, we don't want to turn the schools into armed fortresses," said Board of Education member William Mosher, who serves of the board's Policy Committee, which reviewed the district's procedures and protocols.

Schools everywhere are trying to determine how much security is enough while acknowledging at the same time that it is virtually impossible to protect students from every potential threat.

Over the past year since Sandy Hook, while school security has been at the top of most agendas, there have been 25 school shootings, including Friday's attack at Arapahoe High School in Centennial, Colo., which ended with one student gravely injured and the shooter taking his own life. According to the Daily Beast news website, which compiled those numbers, those shootings resulted in 25 deaths and 26 injuries.

But many of those incidents were the results of fights and conflicts between individual students or troubled teens who brought guns into schools and then turned then on themselves. Much of the equipment and security now being put into place would have done almost nothing to prevent those deaths.

Many districts have hired consultants and formed committees to review school safety. Portsmouth hired the Ogontz Group, a team of four retired U.S. Navy SEALs based in Virginia Beach, Va., to assess that district's security needs.

The New Hampshire Division of the Department of Homeland Security has released a brief outline of security measures for local schools that focuses on three areas: surveillance, access to buildings and emergency warning systems.

School districts can apply for grants up to $50,000 to help with the cost of new technology. Concord's new blue light system was paid for with a $24,500 grant from Homeland Security. Like many districts, Nashua has focused on the entrances to school buildings and installed new intercom systems with surveillance cameras and buzzers that can unlock doors.

Hudson added eight surveillance cameras to monitor the exterior of Alvirne High School, but Homeland Security also suggests installing surveillance cameras in hallways and other common areas of school buildings.

Security consulting firms have advised schools that one of the more effective measures is to design an entrance that channels visitors directly into a school's main office, a design measure that Windham opted for a few years back when the town built its new school.

David Pearl, a member of the Hooksett School Board, said the town has reviewed security measures and policies and has done some refurbishing, but so far has not opted for any major investments.

Even with the help of the homeland security grants, districts are also having to shift funds from other accounts to pay for safety upgrades. Nashua picked up a $50,000 grant, but as Mosher said, it was a drop in the bucket compared with what was actually spent. The new Columbine locks alone, which allow teachers to lock classrooms from the inside, were a $407,000 investment.

And some security firms urge schools to focus more on training than technology.

"We have to have something, or someone, to help identify these mentally unstable people responsible for these shootings," said Mosher. "There are certain things we can learn from the past, you can spot erratic behavior."

Mosher said part of that battle is persuading people to speak up when they sense something is wrong. A lot of people may not want to get involved or may worry their impressions might be off, but Mosher said people have to understand that it's better to be wrong than sorry.

"That's where I think we can continue to make a difference," he said, adding that he feels Nashua has done a good job in protecting its schools and students.

"Short of putting our classrooms on another planet, I think we've done just about everything we can."

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