SALEM — The Salem public school system, like many around the country, is making security changes following the fatal shooting last month of 20 students and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut.
“If anything good has come out of Sandy Hook, it is serving as a reminder of how important it is to have our procedures up-to-date, our equipment working and our staff properly trained ...” Superintendent Stephen Russell said.
“It’s serving as a wake-up call for us ...” he said.
While a few Salem schools had conducted or scheduled lockdown drills this school year before the tragedy in Connecticut, many had not, according to the superintendent. In fact, he said there is no official school policy requiring such drills, and lockdown practices throughout the system are inconsistent.
That’s about to change.
Russell said he has ordered the system’s 10 schools, working with Salem police, to have lockdown, or “intruder in building,” procedures in place and to conduct drills by the end of the school year, preferably within the next 90 days.
It’s not the kind of change that can be made overnight, he said.
“It’s a much more detailed procedure than simply ringing a fire alarm and having everyone exit,” Russell said. “We want to make sure we do it properly and have (the) equipment ... in place to facilitate the effort.”
The Police Department’s school resource officer was working with several schools on emergency procedures even before Sandy Hook and now is devoting much of his time to this effort.
“Obviously, the dynamic has changed now,” police Chief Paul Tucker said.
Police have undertaken a review of every school, making sure they have building blueprints and other vital information on physical plants, which they plan to have available on laptop computers inside cruisers. They also are working closely with school personnel on lockdown plans to make certain that staff at every school know what to do in different situations.
“I want to make sure we have a coordinated response,” Tucker said.
Police also are changing the way they do their jobs. Officers already walk their beats for up to a half-hour during every shift. Now, as part of the walking beat, they are being asked to stop by schools, talk with staff and familiarize themselves with school buildings.
The School Department, meanwhile, is taking a close look at its security equipment.
Problems have been found with walkie-talkies and outside video cameras at a few schools. Those problems are being addressed, Russell said.
The city has asked outside contractors to take a look at the need for emergency or panic buttons at strategic points inside school buildings. The status of locks and keys in each classroom is also being assessed.
School officials are looking at their communication systems, making sure teachers and staff can talk with each other within a building and with police or outside agencies in the event of an emergency. Russell also is searching for the best way to communicate information to parents during and after an incident.
The one security measure the Salem schools will not be adopting is armed staff members, a suggestion made by the National Rifle Association.
“I was disappointed in their response,” the Salem school boss said. “I was hoping the NRA was going to join us as partners in assuring student safety. I don’t think guns are the answer.”
The superintendent said the public schools are also making sure they are doing their best to identify and help students with mental health issues. He said the city is fortunate to have a number of alternative schools and programs for students already in place.
Russell will update the School Committee on security measures Monday night.
Tom Dalton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.