Are children safe at school?
After the unthinkable school shooting that took the lives of 20 children and six educators on Dec. 14, 2012, that question burned its way back to the forefront of many minds.
And while school safety has been an ongoing part of school planning and organization, the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., prompted schools across the country -- and in Berkshire County -- to revisit, evaluate and in some cases upgrade their school security features and response plans.
Working with the Lenox Police Department, Lenox Public Schools implemented an extensive series of security upgrades this year in response to the Newtown shootings.
Both Morris Elementary School and Lenox Memorial Middle and High Schools now have locked classroom door policies all day following the installation of new systems that lock from the inside, according to schools Superintendent Edward W. Costa II.
Just this week, the installation of outside video security cameras has been completed at both schools, he added.
Other steps taken include the introduction of safe-schools crisis manuals with specific instructions for teachers and substitutes, as well as the purchase of two-way radios for communications between administrators and school departments.
Working with the police department, a "common channel" was installed on the school district's two-way radios for emergency communications between the police and the schools.
"The discussion about how do we keep people safe is a continual conversation," said Robert Putnam, assistant superintendent of the Dalton-based Central Berkshire Regional School District. "You always plan for the worst but hope for the best," he said.
Though the national response to the Newtown tragedy included some schools taking on both hired and volunteer armed guards, Berkshire County schools have primarily resorted to technology, infrastructure and training to keep students and staff vigilant and safe.
Central Berkshire schools, for example, all have exterior video camera and buzz-in lock systems. Last year, Wahconah Regional High School also added an expansive video monitoring system, which was installed by administrators themselves to ensure student safety and surveillance.
Central Berkshire, Lenox, and other school districts all have some sort of school safety committee, which typically meets on a monthly basis with area law enforcement. Together, they plan routine safety and emergency evacuation drills and procedures, whether it's in response to an active shooter on campus, or a weather disaster.
"You never expect anything like this to happen, but if it can happen there, it can happen anywhere," said Nessacus Regional Middle School science teacher Joanne Dowling.
She said teachers and staff regularly review procedures with students so as to keep them calm and orderly and responsive should an actual emergency occur. A recently released investigative report on the Sandy Hook shooting revealed how such actions may have saved lives:
"Throughout the rest of the school, staff and students hid themselves wherever they happened to be at the time they became aware of gunfire. The staff used various ways to keep the children calm, from reading to having them color or draw pictures," the report read. "Those hiding in rooms closest to the shooter kept silent. Some people were able to escape out of the building prior to the police arrival and went to Sandy Hook center, nearby residences, or received rides from parents going to the school or from passersby."