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How Safe Are Belmont Schools?

Strong barriers and procedures only go so far; no school is "100 percent safe."

The staff and teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. did everything right last Friday. 

Just after 9:30 a.m., as a stranger unknown to the school's office staff approached the main entrance carrying a high-powered rifle, the front doors were locked as part of a recently-installed buzzer system at the only public entry. A 9-1-1 call went out while teachers and their aids directing children into safe areas in classrooms and began locking the doors as Principal Dawn Lafferty Hochsprung and Mary Sherlach, Sandy Hook's school psychologist, confronted the gun-touting man.

And still in the second worst school massacre on US soil. 

So how safe are Belmont's six school buildings from what until Friday seemed the unthinkable, an armed intruder or a student set to go on a rampage?

For Belmont School Superintendent Tom Kingston, the answer isn't a simple one of fortifying the four elementary, middle and high school that 4,000 students attend on an average school day.

"If a school in nearby Connecticut can be invaded by a mad man, could any school be invaded?" he queried at a press conference with members of the Belmont Police Department and Belmont Town Administrator David Kale Monday, Dec. 17. 

While reassuring residents and staff that schools have security measures in place, Kingston asked "can I guarantee 100 percent safety? Of course not," a sentiment seconded by Belmont Police Chief Richard McLaughlin.

Yet both men believe that "Belmont schools are safe venues for students and staff," said Kingston.

While the fear of possible future violence directed at schools and student has been heighten to near 9/11 levels, Kingston said the statistical fact is children are far safer in a school facility then on the afternoon ride from school or in their own homes. 

Data analyzed using a recent New York Police Department study of "active shooters" – those who attempt to murder people in a confined area, where there are a number of people and who chose at least some victims at random – found that there were 19 confirmed cases in the past 12 years of such incidents in which five or more victims were killed. And most of those incidents occurred in locations other than schools.

"(Sandy Hook) was indeed a very rare event," said Kingston. 

Despite the rarity of the event, "this kind of event is one that without question causes anxiety among us because we feel vulnerable," said Kingston. 

Yet there is always room for improvement despite being prepared to the extent that school and public safety officials feel the district is a secure place from the "rare" event. 

School Security Task Force being formed

At Tuesday's, Dec. 18, School Committee meeting, Kingston announced the creation of a school security advisory task force comprised of school principals, district staff and members from the town's public safety departments to begin "a more coordinated" review of the current and future measures and procedures to make Belmont schools prepared for any incident. 

"There isn't a school district in the country that isn't reviewing it procedures and practices ... to see if we can improve our security so we can reassure our parents, students and staff about the safety of our buildings," said Kingston. 

Like at Sandy Hook, entering a Belmont elementary school requires being buzzed in by someone in the main office and guests are directed to and sometimes escorted to their destination.

Yet physical security measures at the upper schools – the Chenery Middle and Belmont High schools – has caused several parents pause even before the events of last Friday. Visitors currently can enter the Chenery from Washington Street and the Oakley Street parking lot without a locked door in sight.

And while the main office is centrally located on the first floor, a person could easily slip into a nearby stairwell adjacent to the entries and be on the second floor in seconds.

Belmont High School has an "open" campus which allows seniors and soon juniors to enter and exit the building when they have "frees," times when they are not scheduled to be in class.

Access into the forty-year-old school is as easy as opening the front door with only a red sign requesting all visitors to "sign in."

Much of that openness, especially at the upper schools, is in the nature of how US schools operate, "that they are public buildings," said Kingston. The challenge is how much public access and control should there be, said Police Chief McLaughlin.

At the Middle School, that access will soon be more restricted as a buzzer system and a closed circuit camera system will be installed early in the new year, said Kingston at a past School Committee meeting. (On Monday, Kingston said he would not go into the actual systems, procedures or future security plans at Belmont schools as that would be "cherished" information to anyone who "wish to do harm" to students.)

Kingston also pointed to the "close relationship" between the schools and public safety which includes drawing up procedures for staff and officers to follow and regular drills so that "in case of an emergency, we have some experience in how to respond." 

"We have done training and have some resources [such as being members of a regional rapid action public safety team] that we will bring. ... I feel very confident that we have the resources and tools necessary if in fact something happens," said McLaughlin. 

That cooperation was spotlighted "an interesting event" when a Chenery staff member noticed a man acting suspiciously outside the school's playground. The incident was reported, a license plate and description was provided and police acted quickly to identify the man as a father who only wished to see his children playing during his lunch time. 

"We have had that level of vigilance well before the Connecticut incident," said Kingston.

No set gathering place in town for reunions

Yet if an actual act takes place at a school, both Kingston and McLaughlin would not say how the public and especially parents would be informed of "an incident" or where they should gather to either pick-up students or receive information in the worse-case scenario. 

"That is driven entirely by the context of the incident," said Kingston as different actions will have their own unique public responses. Parents would be notified quickly but only after consultation with Belmont public safety officials. 

In the past, the town and Belmont Police have used "reverse" 9-1-1 – in which all land line phones in town receive a recorded message – to inform the public quickly of an emergency. 

While the physical safety has been a paramount concern, meeting the needs of the emotional and mental health of staff and students has been in the forefront of most educators "to-do list" after Sandy Hook.

Belmont educators have been taking a reactive approach to answering questions about the attack or any anxieties that students may feel, especially with elementary age children, said Kingston.

"We feel that much has been discussed at home," he noted.

At the High School, Principal Dan Richards provided a venue for older students to express their feelings with a poster teens were able to sign and write messages that will be sent to Newtown High School.

The schools also are on the watch for students who are expressing potentially hostile behavior that could result in the probability of a violent act. 

"We don't categorize a student as being potentially dangerous (but) we are alert of different type of behaviors and manifestations and try to exercise what sort of interventions that are appropriate," said Kingston.

"And there are some cases we've had to engage (the police) to take possession of a a student or in come cases incarcerate them," he said, adding that Belmont has "a finite number of students" and he believes the staff "knows them fairly well." 

On Monday, the Belmont Board of Selectmen stated they would seek funding to reinstitute a school resource officer – a uniformed, unarmed member of the police force – to the High School.

Kingston said that the most important piece of advice he has for parents in response to the Sandy Hook shootings is to "watch their child."

"If there are indications of anxiety, worries of child safety, by all means talk to our principals, talk to our councilors, to their physicians ... who can deescalate the problems," he said.

"And not to panic themselves because if they become unduly anxious their child will pick that up."  

StillCrazy December 19, 2012 at 10:10 PM
Just a correction, the former school resource officer was a uniformed armed full-time police officer who was assigned to the school on a regular basis.
me too December 20, 2012 at 01:38 PM
The High school is like an open book, anyone can come and go and noone seems to notice or care, and there's talk of an "open campus" they seem to have lots of freedom as it is!! And I have been "buzzed" into the Bulter school but NEVER escorted to any class. I feel by the time everyone hashes out their opinion the need for this will be deminished and down played. THIS IS SOMETHING THAT NEEDS TO BE PUT INTO ACTION NOW!! in 2yrs it'll be great but needed now!! Put aside all the usual petty issues and take care of the kids now!
Franklin Tucker (Editor) December 20, 2012 at 03:58 PM
As for being escorted to a classroom, it happened to me twice but I suspect that was done because I am not a parent of a current student and I do get lost too often to remember.

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