HARVARD -- The Harvard School Committee unanimously voted on Monday to authorize spending up to $7,000 towards the installation of a front door camera/buzzer system for the Bromfield Middle/High School. The intended system is similar to the front door security system installed at the Hildreth Elementary School two years earlier.
In the wake of the Dec. 14 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Conn., Interim Harvard School Superintendent Joseph Connelly said "everyone is much more concerned over security -- rightly so." Twenty-six people were killed at the school by a lone gunman who later turned the gun on himself after previously killing his mother.
In late summer, the district had to submit to the state an "emergency plan" that focused on student head injuries sustained while playing sports. In fulfilling that state mandate, Connelly said his administrative team discovered "our own crisis plan hadn't been updated in a few years."
The school principals, police and fire chiefs, and school staff worked on updating the crisis plan. A draft of that plan was presented to the School Committee on Monday night.
Connelly said the intention is to have the crisis plan bulk copied by students in the printing program at Montachusett Regional Technical High School. The resulting flip book would be placed in "the top drawer" of each teacher's desk within a month's time. "We're very pleased we've taken a proactive stance with the crisis plan," said Connelly.
Security conditions at the town's two schools were reviewed anew. At Hildreth, the administration decided to start locking the glass doors aside the gymnasium, thereby leaving only the front door with the camera/buzzer system for daytime ingress on school days between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m.
A renewed emphasis was placed on staff ensuring that all visitors are signed into the building and wear a visitor badge. "What we need is every single staff member to be on the constant lookout for folks in the building not wearing a badge or looking to see if it's someone they don't know," said Connelly. "It may be a substitute teacher, or it may be a new hire, but it's OK to ask if someone hasn't followed the procedure of signing in and using a visitor's badge. If so, then it's very appropriate to ask someone politely to go back (to the main office)."
A letter was sent home to Hildreth parents, reinforcing the proper drop-off and pick-up procedure to help ensure smooth traffic flow at peak activity hours outside of the school. Bromfield parents likewise received letters advising that the older students would go through a lockdown drill in cooperation with the Harvard Police. That drill occurred this Tuesday.
New, enlarged signage directs visitors to sign in at the office before entering the building. But the administration agrees that the time has come for Bromfield to also have a camera/buzzer system for the school's main door.
"We talked about it last year and felt it appropriate for the elementary school," said Connelly. Now, Connelly said he and Bromfield Principal Jim O'Shea feel "due to the change in society and other incidents since Sandy Hook, maybe it's the time to try it."
Connelly said a poll of 15 area school districts showed that 11 have a security mechanism on the main door that controls entry during the school day. Only four high schools lacked such a system.
"It surprised me," said Connelly. "I thought it would be just the opposite ... A few years ago, it would have been just one or two with such a system."
Connelly proposed a camera/buzzer system be installed at Bromfield "as soon as possible." One concern is how disruptive the buzzer system would be for office staff. Still, Connelly suggested the installation occur and issues with its operation be worked out later in the school year.
Perhaps parent or senior citizen volunteers could operate the system, suggested Connelly.
"Now is the time," said Connelly. "It sets the tone and an atmosphere that we're serious."
School Committee member Patricia Wenger suggested a badge system or swipe card "so teachers and students needn't be buzzed in." Connelly agreed such a system could minimize interruptions to office staff.
The cost of the buzzer system would be $5,000, with an added $1,200 needed to modify the front doors themselves to work with the entry system. The committee ultimately voted to authorize up to $7,000 for the work.
Chairwoman SusanMary Redinger wondered if the system would likewise "initiate a series of door closures and locks" in an effort to encapsulate and secure wings of the school. "We can cost that out," said Connelly while also advocating for the immediate purchase of at least the main door security system.
Any system is "only as good as the staff that implements it," repeated Connelly. The emphasis will remain heavily on encouraging staff to be "vigilant for those who haven't checked in and we don't know who they are."
Committee member Keith Cheveralls said he, too, was a proponent of installing the more intricate lockdown system within the school. Cheveralls warned that a mere camera/buzzer system alone can give "a false sense of security."
Connelly said it was discovered over the summer that some classroom doors didn't lock. Now, at Hildreth Elementary, Principal Linda Dwight reported the rooms now can be "secured in the case of an emergency."
What of those who don't sign in, asked Cheveralls. "I don't want to describe the protocol in a public meeting," answered Connelly. Suffice to say, however, that the plan contemplates "a lot of what-ifs." Likewise, the evacuation plan for students "has to remain confidential."
School Committee member Kirsten Wright wanted an assurance that phones throughout the school would advise on the need to first dial "99" to dial out. She was especially concerned about what security briefings substitute teachers would receive before taking over custody of a classroom.
Good point, said Connelly. Dwight also disclosed that the principals have special "buttons" to push that allow them to "contact the police very quickly."
School Committee member Bob Sullebarger focused on "what happens outside the building" in the case of emergencies. In particular, Sullebarger wanted to know if there was a present policy that at least one of the two police officers on duty would remain within close proximity to the school campuses "to maintain a certain response time when school's in session."
"We can't have (both) cruisers at one end of town if there's an incident at a school," said Sullebarger. "I'm sure there's a cost involved" but "a lot can happen in two to three minutes. We want them here quick and not take 20 minutes to arrive." Connelly said he'd confer with Chief Denmark on that concern.
Special card swipe systems may be added on later, said Connelly. But of the $7,000 approved for a camera/buzzer system, "this will get us started," said Connelly.
Follow Mary Arata at twitter.com/maryearata.