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December 14. 2013 7:54PM

Manchester school security upgrades on target

MANCHESTER - City officials have made improving school communication systems the main focus of security changes since the shooting in Newtown, Conn.

As part of a $2.8 million school technology bond approved last spring, all schools in the district are having new phone and intercom systems installed with "enhanced 9-1-1" capabilities.

The system is designed to allow teachers and students in emergency situations to make a call from any classroom that would immediately alert a dispatcher in Concord to the crisis and its precise location.

"A call can be placed and a caller wouldn't have to speak and (the dispatcher) would know where the call is coming from, the exact location in the school," said district Information Technology Director Jeff DeLangie. "That location information is fed to police and fire departments, who are then working off of common floor plans."

DeLangie said since the summer, the systems have been installed at nearly all elementary and middle schools. DeLangie anticipates that work at the high schools will be completed early next year.

The bond originally allocated $600,000 for the communication upgrades, but the amount was increased to about $900,000 to place the phone systems in every room at the schools, DeLangie said.
 
The school board in Manchester has not engaged in the same level of public debate or devoted as much money to school security as the next-largest city in the state, Nashua.
 
There, the board authorized a $2.4 million security upgrade for schools that included alarms, video monitors, new locks and buzz-in intercom camera system, as well as an overhaul of security procedures. In Manchester, discussions concerning school security have often taken place in non-public meetings. Officials have cited the need to keep any vulnerabilities confidential.
 
"You don't want to tell a potential terrorist how he can hurt us," Ward 10 school board member John Avard, who chairs the Building and Sites Committee, told the New Hampshire Union Leader in May.
 
Ronald Robidas, the city's security manager, said Manchester had already taken steps to improve school security years before the Newtown shooting, including locking all external school doors, having locks on classroom doors, and only allowing access to visitors who have spoken with someone at the front desk via an intercom and signed in at the desk.

Robidas said more stringent protections, such as metal detectors in schools, have been ruled out at this point.

"We're not going down that path. They're a learning environment. We try to keep that perspective," Robidas said. "Nothing is ever going to be 100 percent, but we can make the best effort to prevent and identify people coming in the building."

Over the summer, Manchester participated in security audits conducted by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security at four city schools. Robidas said he had hoped that the reports would've been completed by now, but they have been held up because of the federal sequestration.

In February, city public safety agencies conducted their first school shooting drill, at Parkside Middle School, in nearly a decade, involving the police, firefighters and paramedics.

The drill was a chance to practice new protocols for active-shooter scenarios in which first responders enter the school immediately rather than secure the perimeter of a building. Robidas said the city has also been improving and upgrading the procedures followed by school staff, students and police in emergencies. "That's critical in an emergency situation," he said. "I would say post-Newtown, it really is a just re-emphasis to make sure everything is up to speed."

tsiefer@unionleader.com


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