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December 16. 2012 10:18PM

NH schools stress communication for safety

MANCHESTER - School superintendents in districts spent Sunday afternoon communicating with staff and parents, stressing the importance of helping children feel safe at school today, the first full day of classes following Friday's mass shooting in Newtown, Conn.

Two days after a gunman slaughtered 28 people in Newtown, including 20 children killed inside the Sandy Hook Elementary School, thoughts of school safety and how to talk kids about the tragedy were foremost on the agenda for the state's top educators.

Manchester Superintendent of Schools Tom Brennan said last night he is confident that schools throughout the city are safe havens for students.

"I am very confident in the safety of the school buildings in our district, and the ability of our staff to handle any situation that could come up," said Brennan. "I have two grandchildren, and I wouldn't hesitate to send them, or worry about their safety, in any of our schools."

Brennan said last night that every school in the city uses entrances where doors are locked when school is in session, and visitors must be buzzed in after being recognized and observed by staff through windows or via security camera images.

"I believe our schools are one of the safest places for children," said Brennan. "We have taken appropriate steps in the development of safety response plans and have conducted drills to ensure the plans are functional. The access to our schools is limited and controlled. Our children are in the presence of adults who have received emergency response training and care about the children's safety and wellbeing."

Nashua is one district that does not have the 'buzz-in' security system in all of its schools. Gate City Superintendent Mark Conrad said last night that 14 schools in his district do not have the security system in place at the main entrance. Of those 14, he said nine have main office rooms adjacent to the main doors, where staff can see who is entering the school. But in five schools, the main office is down the hall and away from the doors.

"We have signs in those schools directing visitors to check in at the main office," said Conrad.

Conrad said a proposal to put the buzz-in security system in place at the 14 schools is scheduled to be put out to bid in 60 days, with an estimated cost of $1.4 million to $1.7 million.

"This is not a small project," said Conrad. "Right now, the plan is to begin putting these systems in place after school lets out in June."

Conrad said he doesn't feel there's a need to push up the timetable for installing these systems.

"I feel our schools are very safe," said Conrad. "The truth is, the kind of 'buzz-in' system we're talking about is what they had in place in the school in Newtown. I think an even more important piece of the puzzle is having a good communication system in place, and plans that staff are familiar with and can respond to quickly. I feel like we have those two pieces in place."

Other area school superintendents reached out to parents in their communities via mass emails sent Sunday afternoon.

Goffstown School Superintendent Stacy Buckley wrote, "Throughout the past several years, all three school districts in SAU #19 have taken significant measures to ensure the safety and security of our schools. Over the past year, our emergency management procedures have been completely updated to ensure the best possible management practices as possible. These procedures are practiced throughout our schools in monthly drills done in conjunction with the fire and police departments of our communities. I have been in contact with the Goffstown Police Department and they will be adding additional visits to the schools during the day. This is not due to any level of threat, but an added sense of security over the next few days for parents and faculty."

"I would like to reassure you that our schools are kept locked and main entrances are equipped with camera systems that allow school office personnel to recognize visitors before they are granted entry," wrote Litchfield Superintendent of Schools Brian Cochrane in an email sent to parents last night. "Our schools routinely practice a series of drills for 'lock downs', evacuations, reverse evacuations, and 'stand and scan', etc. However, we understand that no system is any more effective than its weakest point and in the days and weeks that follow the district will be engaging in an examination of our school safety systems and also the procedures that we use in managing building security."

Most districts will have staff ready today to talk with students about Friday's tragedy, if students want to discuss it.

Brennan said all of the Manchester district's principals will meet with their staffs in the morning before school starts. Each principal will assess if they need counseling help in their schools, Brennan said.

"If they need them, we'll secure them," he said.

All of the principals at each school will be making an effort to be visible throughout the day, Brennan said, especially during lunch, to help assure students they are safe. Brennan himself will be visiting the schools throughout the district to make sure all needs are being met.

"I know Dr. Brennan has been working very closely with the principals to make sure everyone is ready when the students come in," said Manchester Mayor Ted Gatsas. "I'm confident in the safety of our schools, but I think this is a good time to review everything we do. I'm planning on meeting with Dr. Brennan and (Manchester Police) Chief (David) Mara to make sure we are doing everything we can to ensure the safety of our students."

pfeely@unionleader.com

New Hampshire Union Leader Staff Reporter Damien Fisher contributed to this story.


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