Holding a special meeting to discuss how to improve security at the elementary schools, the Wrentham School Committee held an open discussion on school safety Thursday night in the Vogel Auditorium to find ways to help avoid a Newtown like situation.
Already taking basic precautions such as installing cameras and locking every entrance to the school during the day, the Wrentham Public Schools already do have security measures in place but are looking for more ideas without locking down the school at all times.
“The alternative is not having anyone in the school,” Wrentham Superintendent Jeff Marsden said. “We feel we’re at the center of the community. We have parents in, we want parents in, but we also want to make sure the kids are safe as well.”
Currently, anyone who wants to enter the schools must do so at the main entrance and sign in at the front desk after being buzzed in by the main office. While in the schools, visitors must wear a guess pass at all times. To emphasize how many visitors come to the elementary schools, Marsden noted that the district goes through 14,000-16,000 passes a year.
In addition, the Wrentham Police Department does regularly walk around the school without guess passes and tries to get into the schools through the side and back doors in plain clothes a couple of times to see if anyone lets them in or questions them. The department then gives Marsden the feedback from the exercise to further improve safety measures.
While there is a lock-down drill in place, Marsden explained that traditionally the schools have practiced the drills without any children but after the Newtown tragedy they are looking at ways to conduct the drills without alarming any students.
“We wanted to make sure that our kids were comfortable and weren't scared at school,” Marsden said,” I think we’re going to start doing that with kids.”
Marsden said that he did visit schools that do lock-down drills with kids to get a better idea on how to conduct one with student involvement and is considering calling it a “safety drill” to avoid alarming students. Parents will also be informed in advance if a drill is conducted.
To enhance visibility at the main office, the district has looked at reconstructing the entrance of the Delaney School to directly lead to the main office and give the staff a better view of who is coming into the school.
“That’s probably the biggest issue we have in terms of visibility from the office,” Marsden said.
Marsden added that the Roderick School would have to be retrofitted for a similar idea to work.
A bulletproof glass double door was also looked at but it was considered unfeasible at $35,000 and weighing 610 pounds.
“The kids can’t open them in emergencies and the adults have a hard enough time. Kids really struggle with that,” Marsden said.
One of the more popular ideas floated was having a police officer or resource officer at the school during the day with some of the audience calling the idea "extremely important," and "vital." While the majority of those in the audience who spoke on the issue were supportive of it, the committee has yet to discuss the addition of a full time police officer to the school.
“The first step is for us as a committee, working with the superintendent and the administrations of the schools is to decide if that’s something that we want,” Chairman Edward Goddard said.
The idea became popular after members of the Wrentham Police Department were present at the school in the days after the Newtown tragedy. While the police are at the school during arrival and dismissal times, they are no longer present for the entire school day.
Due to the idea being discussed for the first time, there were many unknowns involved with adding an officer such as if it would be one officer or one for each building, and if the cost would come out of the school or police budget. Marsden added that the costs of one full time officer would cost an estimated $75,000-100,000 a year
The board also said they would have to see if the response time from an officer getting from one part of a building to another or from one school to another school would be quicker than an officer driving down from the public safety building to the schools.
Mardsen said he has had discussions about adding a resource officer or expanding the hours that the DARE officer spends in the school and will have a meeting with Wrentham police officials to further look at the idea.
Even without an officer present at all times, the school does work with the police department and in the near future will have live video from their security cameras sent to the Wrentham dispatcher.
Other ideas that were proposed and could be implemented almost immediately include bag checks at the front office, locking up areas of the school that are not being used outside of school hours.
The idea for bag checks came when it was mentioned that a student’s grandfather came to the school with a guitar to sing Christmas carols and no one thought to check the guitar case.
With the schools hosting basketball games and boy scouts meetings on the weekends, the option to lock the doors leading to areas of the schools not in use was another idea that could be approved quickly.
In the end, ideas were exchanged and a dialogue was started concerning where the district should go next. While the committee will do what they can do stop a tragedy from happen in Wrentham, the shooting in Newtown was a reminder that no school can be 100% safe all the time.
"From what I read they (Sandy Hook Elementary School) were directly in line with what Homeland Security wanted to have the schools do and there in lies the problem," Marsden said.
The school committee will continue to look at ways to improve school safety at their January 15 meeting.