By Meg O’Neil
The tragic events at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. last week have prompted school districts around the country to examine current security measures and consider whether changes should be implemented.
On Monday, Dec. 17, Newport School Superintendent John Ambrogi informed all principals that the main and any side entrance doors to their schools were to be kept closed and locked during the day. “It may be inconvenient for staff, but given the recent tragedy, we obviously want to err on the side of being very cautious,” he said.
At Thompson Middle School, the main door is kept locked at all times. A buzzer system allows the door to be unlocked from the main office.
According to Ambrogi, Rogers High School has an office administrator at the main entrance to monitor activity, but other than that, the school’s security is limited. “Quite honestly, Rogers is always a problem,” he said. “The building is like an octopus with arms all over the place.”
Cooperation between the school district and the Newport Police Department allows for emergency drills to be practiced every year.
Ambrogi says that lockdown drills are held at least twice a year in all Newport schools - including evacuation drills in case of bomb threats and “lock and place” drills in case a shooter is on school grounds.
Ambrogi cautioned that, “Unless we address some major issues regarding this tragedy, this kind of thing will continue to happen,” he said. “If someone wants to get in a school, no matter the security setup, there will be ways in which they can do it.”
Next year, the city’s four elementary schools will be closing as students transition to the new Pell Elementary School. When it opens, it will be the largest elementary school in the state, housing close to 900 students.
According to Pell Building Committee Chairwoman Jo Eva Gaines, the security system at the new Pell School is already designed to be state of the art. Gaines has weekly meetings with the architects and project managers at the construction site, and the group discussed the school’s security system just last Wednesday, two days before the shooting in Newtown.
“We have a system in place including security cameras and buzzer doors that we’re going to have to discuss more strategically,” Gaines said. “As of right now, all the doors at Pell School will be locked, and the only people authorized with keys will be the principal and custodian. I think we’ll still have to talk about the finer points.”
Ambrogi said it has always been the plan that the new Pell School would have the most up-to-date security measures. “It’s built for that, whereas the older buildings, some of which were constructed in the 19th century, they just never even contemplated what we have to think of today.”
On Monday, Ambrogi sent letters to all parents, guardians, and staff members regarding the tragedy at Sandy Hook School in Newtown. In the letter to the school administration, he wrote that general classroom discussions on the events were not in the best interest of elementary school students, but should rather be left to parents. He also wrote that children’s safety is the district’s top priority.
Additionally, he provided information from the National Association of School Psychologists on how to discuss the tragedy with children. Some of the talking points including reassuring children that schools are very safe, limiting the amount of television coverage of the events, and maintaining a normal routine. (For more tips on talking to children about school violence, visit nasponline.org.)
Ambrogi said that nationwide changes must occur in order to prevent another tragedy from occurring in our schools: “We’ve got to improve mental health, and identify individuals who show signs of being antisocial,” he said. “Something needs to be done in terms of the use of assault rifles. The time has come to have that conversation. Every time something like this happens, people say, ‘Now is not the right time.’ But if it’s not now, when is it time?”