S chool leaders in northern Washington County are taking a closer look at security procedures following the tragic shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut earlier this month.
Whitehall Superintendent James Watson said the district’s crisis team was planning to meet and review safety protocols at both the elementary and high schools.
“We’re always concerned with the safety of the students. It’s our top priority even before education,” said Watson. “In today’s environment, we are always examining our safety procedures. I think you’d be remiss to not do that.”
The district currently keeps all but the main entrances to its schools locked and has security cameras both inside and outside the buildings. Administrators and teachers are also on standby during departure and arrival.
And procedures are adjusted on a daily basis based on weather, school functions, parental disputes at home and other situations that may evolve
But some parents have questioned whether the district is doing enough.
Joanne Foster said she spoke with officials at Whitehall Elementary School earlier this week about additional measures to protect students.
“I asked if there were any plans for higher security like a camera or a buzz-in system and was told no and even with the extra security Sandy Hook had this guy still get in,” Foster said. “That may be so, but the extra time gave the teachers extra time to hide their students.”
Several other parents suggested a buzz-in system, similar to ones used at Washington County Head Start facilities, would be a good start.
“I feel there needs to be a discussion about security and also a safety plan in case something like this does happen,” Julia Houghtby said.
For the time being, officials in Whitehall don’t plan to implement wholesale changes to their security protocols, but conversations are ongoing.
“At this point, our primary concern is tweaking the procedures in place instead of making wholesale changes.”
“But we’re always seeking input. It’s an ongoing process.”
Mark Bessen, Superintendent of the Granville School District said officials are constantly looking at school security.
“We’re always estimating the safety situation in the school; we’re always actively evaluating,” Bessen said.
Granville Principal Jim Donnelly said the school had been reviewing security and emergency preparedness even before the tragedy in Connecticut.
“We’re working every day to ensure the well-being of our students,” Donnelly said. “We are looking at it and figuring out what we need to do.”
The district recently implemented a buzz-in system at two of its schools and is waiting for the equipment to install the system at a third school.
Hartford has also taken strides to improve its security.
Superintendent Thomas Abraham’s said the school had already created a safety plan, was in the process of implementing changes, and sent a letter home to parents acknowledging what happened.
All outside doors at the Hartford School will now remain locked at all times, except when students get off the bus in the morning. And students needing to travel between the main building and the separate technology center will only be able to do so when a staff member is present to open the door for them.
Hartford Principal Andrew Cook said these modifications are worth any inconvenience they might cause.
“School is a safe place, but no matter the safety measures, bad things can still happen. We’re doing everything we can to mitigate those opportunities,” Cook said.
The school has already been doing drills with the sheriff’s department every year, and now visitors can only enter the building through the elementary or high school office.
The county has even taken steps to ensure it’s prepared for the worst.
Several years ago the Washington County Department of Public Safety compiled all relevant security protocols at local schools, including points of egress and the location of security cameras so they would be prepared in the event of an emergency.
The Washington County Sheriff’s Department said it will meet with BOCES officials next month and help coordinate safety plans for every district. The department’s Emergency Response Team also plans to conduct drills in several local school districts in the coming months.
Whitehall High School Principal Kelly McHugh said in the past she has talked with members of the New York State Troopers about ways to enhance security at the school.
“We’re always looking for ways to improve our procedures,” she said.
Twenty years ago, Abraham said, parents could essentially come and go as they pleased at the school. Now, it’s much more confined.
“It’s unfortunate that these things happen, because for the most part in this country, schools are a safe place,” Abraham said.
Bessen describes the kind of defense Granville and many area schools have as a passive defense. While most officials agree that an armed individual would be able to find his or her way into a building, they still want to ensure every possible protection is in place.
“Do we have to be vigilant? Yes. Do we have to be prepared? Yes,” he said.
That being said, officials stressed that they want their students to understand that school is a safe place.
“Our goal is to ensure a safe environment and I think we’re doing that,” Watson said.