A Berkshire Eagle Special Report: How safe are our schools?

With new school buildings comes updated security


With the recent spate of violence targeting schools, safety and security is at the forefront of people's minds, especially in regard to gun violence.

But the matter of safety and security in school buildings in bigger than that. On a regular basis, schools have to be prepared to manage a lot of people in the event of a fire, natural disaster, any kind of medical emergency, bomb threat or other incident that poses harm.

Which is why in Berkshire County, as several districts venture into different phases of school improvement and new building projects, implementing 21st-century safety and security protocols and design features is a top priority.

Pittsfield is in the process of building a new Taconic High School.

"The Taconic Project, indeed, focused from day one on security," said Pittsfield Public Schools Superintendent Jason "Jake" McCandless.

He said the Taconic design team has had several meetings focused on security, including two districtwide meetings that included all key personnel responsible for the implementation of the district's emergency procedures, from local law enforcement and emergency responders to school administrators and heads of building and grounds maintenance.

School districts are required by law to submit emergency preparedness and response plans to the state. For new school building projects, the Massachusetts School Building Authority recommends that planning be done with a public safety official, and indicates that under state statutes, a design and educational program plan must include information about safeguarding the facility and its occupants.

In the Central Berkshire Regional School District — which is looking at either a redesign or new construction for the more than 50-year-old Wahconah Regional High School building in Dalton — the thoughts are the same, to include public safety and security experts in conversations around the design.

The same approach has been taken with the new Mount Greylock Regional High School building that's currently under instruction and also set to open this fall, in Williamstown.

"We assess what we've needed to do and what we have," said Kimberley Grady, interim superintendent for Williamstown-Lanesborough Public Schools.

New building projects, thanks to updated federal and state laws, are now designed with Americans with Disabilities Act compliance in mind. Grady said that since the new Mount Greylock building includes three floors versus a single level, the school is currently working to invest in evacuation chairs designed to be quickly accessed and used with either stairs or elevators in case of a fire or other emergency prompting an evacuation.

Nationally, research indicates that building entrances are key areas to reinforce for safety. While nearly all school buildings in the Berkshires have entryways that are locked, equipped with a buzzer system for entry and a security camera, new approaches in entry design include the installation of entryways which require people to go through some sort of security station or second set of locked doors, which can stop or delay an intruder from advancing into other parts of a building.

That was a matter a safety subcommittee for the Mount Greylock project also addressed "at the very beginning," Grady said.

While there are buzzers and double doors at the existing Mount Greylock and Taconic entrances, they open up into common areas of the buildings with access to multiple hallways.

With the new Taconic building, McCandless said, the entry will have enhanced security camera surveillance, new fast-acting door locks; new markings, designated entries and signage for emergency and safety personnel entrance and evacuations; and other new alarm systems designed to more quickly alert staff if there are breaches into secured areas.

"Many of these items are things we aspire to in every building or have in place in buildings already," said McCandless. "There are other safety planning features that we, by best practices suggestion, do not discuss publicly."

Things that aren't publicly discussed or published, but are details shared when necessary with families, include routes and reunification sites in the event of an emergency.

When new infrastructure and plans are in place, schools then work with local and regional law enforcement and public safety officials to review plans and protocols on a regular basis, something that's been addressed on a countywide level since 2009, according to Massachusetts State Police Trooper Andrew Canata, assigned to the Troop B Community Action Team and School Safety Unit.

After the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, then-Gov. Deval Patrick convened a Task Force on School Safety and Security across education, health and human services, and public safety departments. That task force published a 36-page report in July 2014, detailing state statutes and recommended guidelines for procedures, protocols and model safety and security plans, which is still referred to today.

But while you can put as many best practices as you want on paper, Canata said, the key is in actually practicing procedures. Which is why, he said, schools, in addition to fire drills, now practice evacuations, have mock reunifications, shelter-in-place and lockdown drills, among other safety rehearsals. This is something done countywide on a regular basis with school staff, students and public safety teams said Canata, who co-presented with Dalton Police Chief Jeffrey Coe at a school safety overview to the Central Berkshire School Committee on Thursday night.

"We do know what we're doing," said Coe, "and I'm proud of how far we've come. We're drilling more than ever in districts in the county."

Said interim Superintendent Grady, when the new Mount Greylock building opens this fall, "it will be a new process for students and staff" transitioning from a building that is some 50 years old. But, she said, "I have 100 percent confidence in the plan we have in place because we have that partnership with police and fire personnel."

Jenn Smith can be reached at jsmith@berkshireeagle.com, at @JennSmith_Ink on Twitter and 413-496-6239.


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