Nearly a Year After Sandy Hook, how Safe are County Schools?
The Walkersville United Methodist Church chapel was packed to capacity on a December morning last year for the annual holiday program presented by the church’s preschool, Weekday Nursery, before an audience of camera and phone clutching parents on guard to capture precious moments. but in the midst of the Reindeer Hokey Pokey and We Wish You a Merry Christmas, the crowd was asked To pause.
It was 9:30 a.m. and the church bell began to ring, people now somber and remembering the horror from exactly a week before in Newtown, Conn., when 20 first graders and six adults were gunned down at that hour by a man who forced his way into Sandy Hook Elementary. After the 26th toll, one for each life lost, the room remained silent, the bell continuing to send out a ripple of vibrations through the chapel as the next group of students prepared to resume the program.
Nearly 10 months later, the effects from Sandy Hook continue to be felt as Frederick County schools—both public and private—have sought to tighten security in the aftermath. Clifton Cornwell, security coordinator for Frederick County Public Schools, says “we did change some processes due to Sandy Hook.” The most visible of these changes was equipping all schools with camera/buzzer entry systems. “Now, you must come through the front entrance,” Cornwell says. “It’s no longer a situation where a school might have to leave a door open up there. Now all doors to the school should be locked.” Visitors wishing to enter a school must use the buzzer and be prepared to identify themselves.
Front office staff will ask questions as to the reason for the visit and once the doors are opened, visitors are directed to the front office.
New Market Middle School was among the first in the county to get the buzzer system after Sandy Hook. The system eased anxiety in the community and lessened fears, says Principal Jennifer Bingman. Administrators have stressed to staff members about making visitors enter through the system and the main office. One concern is a visitor who comes in a side entrance and tries to enter the school by blending in with the staff. In that case, staff members are instructed to go back to their car and call the main office if they don’t feel comfortable saying something to the visitor. “We can find out who that person is and why they are trying to gain access to the building,” Bingman says.
Because Weekday Nursery is part of a church, the school had always had an open-door policy. No more. “Sandy Hook really made us react,” says preschool Director Lindsay Wildasin. Doors are now locked five minutes after classes start and then unlocked for pick-up five minutes before classes end. Over the years, many people had access to keys to the building, so the locks were all changed. Now, only a small group of people have keys. “Those keys are numbered with the person who should have it,” Wildasin says. “It’s very strict on who has keys to the church.”
A buzzer was installed the Monday after Sandy Hook once the preschool staff, church pastor and board of trustees met to discuss safety. Either Wildasin or Vicky Wilson, the school’s assistant director, serves as entrance greeter every day. “I did exactly what I would want a school holding my children to do,” Wilson says.
Because an intruder isn’t likely to stop at an office once they have gained access to the grounds, many public school entrances are being remodeled as an additional security measure. “So when you do get buzzed in, you are automatically directed to the front office,” Cornwell says. “You can’t go elsewhere. You have to go through the office, then through check-in to enter the rest of the building.”
With 23 schools already equipped with redesigned entrances, FCPS plans on remodeling 20 more this year, including Brunswick, Walkersville and Urbana high schools, Walkersville and New Market middle schools, and Whittier and Orchard Grove elementary schools. New Market will be getting glass doors installed throughout the entranceway either during the winter or spring break. The main office has large glass windows, so administrators can see the entrance. However, when visitors enter the school, they have access to the entire building through a large open area. “I don’t think it will be huge construction … with the setup the way it is,” Bingman says. “I was very excited [for the remodeled entrance] because it is absolutely something that we need.”
The remaining school entrances are also being discussed, Cornwell says. Some present architectural issues such as having to move an entire staircase or handicap access ramp in order to remodel.
While safety measures are being undertaken in the county’s bricks-and-mortar schools, what about the portable classrooms that are popping up like weeds to lessen crowding in many rapidly growing communities? Access to these trailers, which often sit on open ground next to a school building, is available without entering school property through a main entrance. Cornwell says portable classroom doors are locked and video surveillance is also used outside. Each portable has a phone, a public-address speaker and a fire alarm. Staff members are instructed to watch students move between the portables or between the portables and the school building. “We encourage schools to make sure lighting is working properly and that shrubs and trees are trimmed so they are not blocking line of sight between the portables and the school building,” Cornwell says.
Prior to Sandy Hook, schools had in place processes such as lock downs and email notifications in the case of a known threat—such as perpetrators of crimes being chased near schools. “We have utilized partial lock downs” on several occasions, Cornwell says. “In the event we would have a lock down or partial lock down, alerts would be sent to parents that had signed up to receive them.”
But emergency plans for each school have also been updated since Sandy Hook. One change includes having first responders come to rooms to alert when a crisis is over; school administrators handled that role in the past. School buses have also been upgraded from analog to digital radios that provide for clearer transmissions and the ability to get better reception in areas like the Catoctin Mountains or while on a field trip to Baltimore.
All school administrators will be going through incident command training this year. “We have done that in the past, but this year we are having everyone in an administrative role take incident command training,” Cornwell say. Teachers will also be trained regarding different incident scenarios. “It always helps all of us to have (training) in the forefront of our minds,” he says.
Sheila Evers, director of development and marketing at St. John Regional Catholic School in Frederick, says her staff goes through training for a variety of different crisis situations including lock downs, bomb threats and assaults. The private school, which also has locked doors and a buzzer system, had local and federal officials inspect its building after Sandy Hook to explore additional security improvements. “We definitely have control over who is entering our building and the ability to lock down our school,” Evers says.
The school is raising funds to purchase a state-of- the-art video surveillance system throughout the premises. “Hopefully a tragedy like [Sandy Hook] won’t happen at our school or any school, but we want to be prepared,” Evers says.
Parent reaction to the additional security changes has been positive, Cornwell says. “Parents were looking for what our visitor procedures were. Were we locking our doors? Overall, it’s been very positive.”
Many back-to-school nights included school security information. Bingman gave a PowerPoint presentation discussing safety drills and crisis plans. “I tried to proactively address it at back-to-school night so that people knew it was a focus for us,” she says.
Jackie Morales was worried to send her only child, Alex, to kindergarten at Urbana Elementary School this year because she kept thinking of different safety and crisis scenarios. When she attended back-to-school night, the Urbana resident was ready to ask questions about security and was pleasantly surprised to learn the students had already done a lock down drill, with more planned. “It’s good to know schools are taking this approach,” she says.
Communication among students, staff, administrators and parents is key, Cornwell says. “That’s really good school security. We can have all the gadgets, but it’s building that rapport. Most of the time, if there is a concern in school, students do come forward and tell an adult. … We really do stress that as being a major part of school security.”
“Part of The Fabric of The Schools”
Assigned to each of the 10 county public high schools, members of the Frederick County Sheriff’s Office School Resource Unit, known as SROs, serve as both a part of the school staff and as a police officer.
Started in 2005, the program strives for officers to maintain a highly visible uniformed presence at their schools, create a positive police experience for students and address crime and disorder problems, such as gangs and drug activity in the schools and community. “We work together all the time on a daily basis,” says Clifton Cornwell, FCPS security coordinator.
Often there’s some initial distance as teenagers and police officers are not generally known to be in the same circles, says Sgt. Mark Landahl of the School Resource Unit. “As the SROs talk with the kids, teach in their classrooms and get to know them through talking with them in the hallways, the SRO becomes a part of the fabric of the schools.”
The 13 deputies also work with associated middle and elementary schools that feed into the high school. Those schools also receive visits from allied agencies such as the Frederick, Brunswick and Thurmont police departments. SROs all attend the National Association of School Resource Officers basic course and specialized training in school security and gangs.
“There is an increased interest in what [SROs] do as a result of the Sandy Hook tragedy,” Landahl says. “Many communities that did not make the commitment to have SROs in their schools prior to Sandy Hook have looked to start programs.”
The officers enjoy interacting with the kids in a positive manner and getting to know them. “Many of the deputies get to know kids with needs and help identify means to help,” he says.
Shortly after the Sandy Hook tragedy, the National Rifle Association called for arming teachers and school staff. Cornwell, who was in the U.S. Army Military Police, is not in favor. “It’s constant training and even then you have incidents,” he says. “You can’t just arm people. … I find it to be a danger.” Clifton prefers the SRO approach.
“A uniform presence is a key,” Cornwell says. “They work well with our students and our staff in administration. They know our students. If something would occur over the weekend they will let us know in advance and that it could be something that could impact the school.”