Could what happened at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown happen here? That was the question weighing heavily on the minds of many of the parents who attended special meetings held by the Boards of Education for both the East Lyme and Lyme-Old Lyme school districts last night.
"We take the responsibility of your children's safety as a substantial burden," said Lyme-Old Lyme Superintendent Ian Neviaser. "My purpose here is to make people feel confident."
East Lyme Superintendent of Schools James Lombardo and Lyme-Old Lyme Superintendent Neviaser gave parents an overview of how the schools plan for and handle emergencies, what security systems are currently in place, and what new security measures are being considered in light of the school shooting in Newtown last Friday.
For the most part, parents left reassured to hear that the schools were doing everything in their power to ensure students' safety. Police are currently stationed at every school in both districts daily and doors are now kept locked so that every visitor is approved before being buzzed in.
Lockdown and evacuation drills are held frequently and all staff are trained to respond to every kind of emergency, from an influenza epidemic to a carbon monoxide leak. Students also practice "sheltering in place" and, because middle school and high school students are in different classrooms throughout the day, drills are held at different times and all staff know the safest places to hide throughout the school if there's an intruder.
Gaps in Security
Parents questions, however, did reveal a few gaps in school security that need shoring up. Asked whether substitute teachers had the same training as staff, Neviaser admitted they didn't and that was an area that could be improved.
Another parent pointed out that though school entrances are locked during the day, they aren't at night when the buildings are open to the public. Some parents worried that their children might not be secure if they participate in afterschool programs or evening activities. That's a trickier problem to solve, because school facilities have to be available to members of the public too.
"At this point, we're not considering locking the schools after hours," Neviaser said.
One parent at the Lyme-Old Lyme Board of Education meeting last night suggested that teachers be trained in self-defense or be armed, if not with guns then at least with tasers and pepper spray. Another parent noted, however, that he'd rather see law enforcement officers who are trained to use such weapons based at the schools than arm teachers.
The possibility of installing metal detectors and bullet-proof glass, at least around entryways, came up at both the East Lyme and the Lyme-Old Lyme district meetings last night. East Lyme Selectman Kevin Seery, who is also the resident state trooper for Salem, said that reinforcing the windows would be just as effective and much cheaper than installing bullet proof glass.
Neviaser said that, while the school district isn't currently considering installing either, the district was open to all suggestions. However, as other parents noted, no one wants to turn the schools into a fortress or a place that feels like a prison.
East Lyme, Old Lyme, and Lyme are all small towns, the kind of places where everyone knows everyone and people generally feel safe. The problem is, of course, that's the way people describe Sandy Hook, the small village in Newtown that is currently dealing with the second worst school shooting in U.S. history. And that school, as one parent noted last night, had all the same security features and procedures that our schools do now.
Planning Ahead in the Wake of Sandy Hook
As a new school, Lyme-Old Lyme High School is already equipped with security cameras throughout the school that can be viewed remotely, magnetic locking systems, and electronic buzzer systems.
The Lyme-Old Lyme Board of Education recently approved installing magnetic locks (which are more secure than the traditional push-bar doors) and electronic access systems for all schools in the district. That is slated to happen in mid-January.
Currently all staff are equipped with radios, which they carry with them at all times, including during recess and sports activities. Once all the schools have wi-fi access, Neviaser said, the schools hope to be able to provide cell phone service for staff too. The school district is also discussing installing panic buttons in classrooms, similar to those that banks have, to enable staff to contact police without having to dial 911.
For some time now, Old Lyme Emergency Services have been planning to improve the towns' emergency radio system so that the police, fire, emergency medical, and public works departments are all operating on the same frequency with additional bands to allow them to communicate with each other in all sections of town.
The school district has also been party to that discussion, as the police would like to have emergency radios in all the schools. This week, Old Lyme Emergency Services gave presentations to both the Board of Selectmen and the Board of Finance requesting a budget appropriation of about $31,000 to expand the town's emergency radio antennae as the first phase of this project.
All of these proposals were in the works long before the shooting happened.
"We have procedures in place prior to this incident and we've looked at [them] and made some changes [since]," Neviaser said. But, he stressed, none of this is a "knee-jerk" reaction to the tragedy.
The Old Lyme Police Department said it is prepared to provide a police presence at the schools for "as long as needed," but one parent at last night's meeting said that her elementary school student was more frightened than comforted by the unfamiliar sight of a police officer at the school.
Neviaser said the schools have been trying to strike a balance. "Our goal is to keep them safe but we don't want to terrify them," he said.
Old Lyme Resident State Trooper Gary Inglis and First Selectwoman Bonnie Reemsynder both said they'd like to see police officers in the schools on a regular basis, perhaps giving presentations or just popping by to high-five students as they board the buses to develop a closer relationship with kids in town.
"I would love to see our officers invited into the school and become a familiar face," said Reemsnyder.
Until the state cut the budget, police departments had local School Resource Officers who used to work with schools on a regular basis. Lyme-Old Lyme School Board members said they'd like to see that program reinstated and are optimistic that, since the shooting, the state might be prepared to put funding for that program back in the budget.
"I was a prior School Resource Officer and I was disappointed to see that program disbanded," said Inglis. "We need to have a bigger presence. I don't want the kids to be scared of us."