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School security tops concerns as districts near budget season

Special to the Sunday News

January 12. 2013 11:35PM
Keene Police Officer Matt Griffin, school resource officer for SAU 29, talks about school safety and the role of resource officers in the wake of the Newtown tragedy Friday afternoon at the high school. (MELANIE PLENDA)

Some town warrants and ballots this year are reflecting the fears of school officials and parents in the wake of the Newtown massacre.

At least three school districts - one where attempts have failed three times before - are looking into adding school resource officers, while others are looking to add more locks and other safety measures, all as a direct result of Newtown.

"Whether it's in Connecticut or anyplace, I think our society has a false sense of immunity that it will never happen (here)," said Middleton K. McGoodwin, superintendent of SAU 6, which includes Claremont, Cornish and Unity. "I think being proactive and not overactive is a good thing."

While SAU 6 has a resource officer, McGoodwin said he's not surprised that most, if not all, districts are reevaluating the issue of security.

At the Jan. 5 Kearsarge Regional School District deliberative session, Richard Anderson, a municipal budget committee representative from New London, asked to add $50,000 to the district's budget in order to hire a school resource officer. Anderson and school officials said the amount is an estimate of what they would need to cover salary and benefits of the officer who would be affiliated with the police department.

If it turned out not to cost as much, the money would be returned to the taxpayers, officials said. SAU 65 includes Bradford, Newbury, New London, Springfield, Sutton, Warner and Wilmot.

The amendment was overwhelmingly, but not unanimously, approved by the 80 voters - which included school board and municipal budget committee members - at the meeting. The resource officer issue is a contentious one, since measures asking for officers have been voted down at least three times in the past.

Voter Bob Wright of Sutton, spoke in favor of the amendment.

"It's too damn close and some people will say we're overreacting," Wright said. "I really don't think we are. Anybody who has munchkins knows what happened. And there's always a chance of something happening again."

However, there were some people in the audience who voted against the amendment saying that adding a resource officer wouldn't do anything to stop someone determined to kill.

"Trying to connect Newtown to anything in any way to what you're proposing here is completely out of touch," voter Charles Forsberg said. "Newtown was a very complicated arrangement that had nothing to do with the school. It just happened to be an unfortunate target."

Superintendent Leo Corriveau said voters in the Monadnock School District, which includes Fitzwilliam, Gilsum, Richmond, Roxbury Sullivan, Swanzey, Troy and Winchester, last year stopped funding the school resource officer position.

Corriveau said that last week voters submitted a petitioned warrant article asking for $65,000 to reinstate the resource officer position. Further, he said the district ran a lockdown drill and is looking at more ways to make the schools safer.

"All schools are doing this now," he said. "We're all taking extra precautions around school safety."

Corriveau said he, like most superintendents, see a resource officer not only as a deterrent, but also as someone who can help coordinate emergency responses, help with truancy and educate students and teachers about safety, along with a range of other activities.

Most resource officers are affiliated with police departments, but there are a few exceptions.

In Littleton, the district hired a retired police officer in 2010 for security after its school resource program was defunded. Littleton Superintendent Keith Pfeifer said though he is permitted to have a weapon, the retired officer doesn't carry a gun at the school.

"If you want to send the message at your school that weapons are not allowed at all for anybody, then you know," he said of the former officer not having a gun. "But who knows who's right on either side of this (gun in schools issue)."

But he did say, "If you're going to carry a Bushmaster (an assault weapon), I'm sorry, but there isn't much that we have that's going to stop that."

In the wake of Newtown, Pfeifer said there have been discussions of bringing back funding for a school resource officer.

However, he said district officials are looking for grant money to fund the position, so it probably won't go before the voters this year.

They already have a resource officer for SAU 29. That includes Chesterfield, Harrisville, Keene, Marlborough, Marlow, Nelson and Westmoreland. But, said superintendent Wayne Woolridge, right after Newtown, the district put together a task force to look at school safety. Out of that discussion, they've decided to appropriate $70,000 for new locking mechanisms for the schools in Keene, in addition to doing safety audits of the 13 school buildings in the district.

"I mean, really, Sandy Hook Elementary had some of the best safety (resources): having a camera (and) only two entrances," Woolridge said. "So when staff and parents (in SAU 29) started thinking and internalizing and began to generalize that experience to what could happen in their own school, they started to notice some things that were an issue."

He said these issues were on the capital improvement plan, but bumped them up as a direct result of Newtown.

From most accounts, no one sees resource officers as a silver bullet. But it's widely believed that the presence of an officer does act as a deterrent to some extent.

Further, said Keene Police officer Matt Griffin, who is the resource officer for the Keene School District, most resource officers are located near the front of school buildings.

Since many schools lock all of the doors except for a couple at the front, a trained officer is a good resource to have near the front of the school should an attacker come in, and could help mitigate some of the destruction.

As for having an armed police officer in school, Griffin explained that not only are police officers trained to cover their weapon even as they walk down the hall, but the gun is placed in a triple intent holster.

He said that means it's not waggling around loose in the holster making it easy for someone to grab. Instead, the officer has to go through three mechanisms to get the gun out of the holster.

"A school resource officer is insurance," superintendent Corriveau of the Monadnock District said. "And having all the resources in place is insurance. You just never know. You've just got to do these things."

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