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Letter: Orange Superintendent on School Security

Lynn K. McMullin provides an update on plans in place and addresses questions and concerns that residents may have.

The following is a letter about school security from Orange Superintendent of Schools Lynn K. McMullin.

Dear Parents and Members of the Orange Community,

The devastating tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut, forever changed our comfort level and the nature of the community-wide conversation about our children’s safety. After all, this is not an event we can rationalize or compartmentalize. This was not a custody battle gone wrong. This was no former employee with a grudge, looking for revenge. This was not even a media-numbed student trying to put his grievances against school or peers to right through violence. This was simply random and senseless.

The images from Sandy Hook left school districts reeling with sadness and torn between two basic instincts: the first, to button up our schools, to lock all the doors and make them fortresses; the second, to let our children be children in a nurturing environment that welcomes parents and volunteers and celebrates community.

We are, of course, engaged in the serious study of Orange’s facilities and safety procedures. We are trying, to the degree we are able, to provide as much protection for our children and staff as possible.

In January 2013, the Police Department, Fire Department, and our Facilities Director, along with several Board members and parents with experience in the field, participated in a SWOT Analysis. This is an assessment of the district’s buildings and infrastructure with regard to our strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats.

This deep level of assessment was not new to Orange as our SWOT reports date back to 2006; but Newtown gave them a new sense of urgency and level of importance. In the past, many of the recommendations that came out of a SWOT Analysis were considered ‘just out of reach.’ So, where the SWOT Analysis may have recommended such items as video surveillance cameras, classrooms blinds, or new locksets that locked classrooms from inside the room versus from the corridor, the implemented measures may have included the blinds, but not the cameras... or included a clever, but makeshift adjustment to the locks, but not the new lock themselves.

One of the best results of the past SWOT Analyses was the development of Orange’s Code Red Lock-Down Protocols which have served as a model for other school districts for several years. We know that lockdown procedures, while they could not prevent the events in Newtown, did save lives.

We have come to understand this as the difference between prevention and mitigation. While, we cannot prevent an incident from arriving at our doorstep, we can mitigate the impact. That is the approach we have applied as we paid much closer attention to our SWOT Analysis than ever before. We no longer want the installations that can save lives to be ‘just out of reach.’

On January 28, 2013, the Board of Finance became our strong ally when they funded the school district money for two immediate projects and recommended the remainder of the projects be put in an upcoming bond. Thus, my intention is to effectively discuss the issue of student safety and to demonstrate both the level of our preparedness and our plans for increased security measures, but to do so in a way that engenders your confidence and perhaps lessens your anxiety.

Our security plans going forward are about finding a place to land while the national debate rages around us. That said, I’m assuming these are your questions and concerns:

Why must I state my name, the nature of my business, and provide an ID at school doors?

First and foremost, there is a need that everyone follows our new safety procedures. Please don’t be personally offended if a staff member asks for your name and the nature of your visit. Please be patient if signing in or out your children takes extra time; please be courteous while staff looks up your name or checks a database. Staff members are not singling you out. These new, more stringent, policies are meant to assure that our staff members stay alert, assess visitors, and then make conscious decisions at the entryway doors. Staff members can get overly comfortable and ‘buzzing in’ can become automatic and lax. While our regular, easily recognizable guests may pose no threat, if they breeze in and out of school, the district’s safety message is rendered false.

It feels rude to shut the door when another visitor is coming up right behind me!

While it is probably contrary to the way you were raised, please do not hold the door open for other people who are not in your party. Please allow our school staff members to assess all visitors and buzz in all the school’s guests. If you feel the need, say hello and tell the visitor you hope they understand the security procedures do not allow holding the door open.

What will the rapid call system do?

While there’s no doubt the adults in Sandy Hook acted admirably, there’s also no doubt the systems didn’t cooperate. A standard morning announcement system is simply not the most effective way to engage emergency procedures, especially when moments matter. Too many steps in the process! Too much chance for operator error! We are installing ‘rapid call systems’ (or ‘panic buttons’) in all four buildings. The buttons will simultaneously initiate a pre-recorded message throughout the school that the school is in lock-down, a call to the Police Department that there is a lock-down emergency, and the automatic closing of the interior fire doors. This is one of the immediate projects funded by the Board of Finance in late January.

Why does the district need ID card readers at the doors?

This is the second project funded by the BOF, and it has many merits even beyond security. First and foremost, however, ID Card Readers will allow the school entrances to be permanently locked at all times, even in the morning when teachers are arriving to work. Technology will control the ID readers, turning on and off access as warranted. Teachers will scan themselves in from the front doors and from the playgrounds after recess. No more will doors be unlocked or propped open. Teachers, too, will be expected not to hold the doors open for each other, as the card reader will become the attendance record the police will use in an emergency. These colorful IDs will also identify teachers as staff to police officers ... and as ‘people you can trust’ to students. We will, of course, carefully establish protocols to secure the IDs.

What is a ‘sally-port’? Does ‘shatter-guard’ really work?

You’re no doubt very familiar with the concept of a sally-port, even if you didn’t previously know the term for it. It refers to a second set of doors that creates a locked foyer. A visitor is buzzed into one set of doors and then signs-in with a receptionist before being buzzed through the second set of doors. Now, that I know what they are, I have begun to recognize them everywhere I go. My dentist’s office has one, as do Woodbridge and Amity. My grandchildren’s schools in Massachusetts have sally-ports, as do most banks and many office buildings. You may have heard that we could only install sally-ports at three of the schools and would need to install a service window at Race Brook, instead of a sally-port. Recently, we worked out an option for a sally-port at Race Brook, as well. We will work hard to ensure the sally-ports are attractive and welcoming, while at the same time adding a second level of entrance security. Coupled with shatter guard, they should make us all more comfortable with how much more difficult it would be for an intruder to gain access. Yes, shatter-guard is impressive. We saw a demonstration of a product that was bullet-proof, and about 17 minutes into the demo, even using sledge hammers and axes, the window was still impenetrable. I’m not going to go into the full plan here; but without changing the look of our schools, we have added those precious moments that become essential in mitigating a potential threat at our doors.

Won’t video surveillance cameras be an invasion of privacy?

There’s no doubt that video cameras can see and record everything these days. If you watched the Inauguration, you witnessed how powerful they are and how closely they can zoom in, from even a mile away, on someone yawning or scratching their nose. However, we are not planning to station anyone at a monitor, watching the cameras and zooming in on the students or staff on playgrounds or loading docks or in hallways. We are carefully considering the camera placement, so that both the exterior doors and interior common areas are covered. This includes the entrances and offices. It does not include the lavatories, classrooms, and any semi-private or private areas! We will provide proper notice of the presence of surveillance cameras with signs stating ‘video surveillance in use.’ We will also develop all the legal protocols and policies for taping, reviewing, releasing, and so on. In our security plan, the principals, Central Office, the Technology Administrator, and the Police will all be able to access the cameras from a computer and zoom in when an incident is in progress. This provides the opportunity to observe any unfolding events in real time. It also allows the Police Department or us to back-up the cameras’ DVR recordings and see what had happened in the previous minutes or hours, which is helpful if a child goes missing or we’ve suffered vandalism to one of the buildings. At Sandy Hook, video surveillance would not have prevented the tragedy; but it would have allowed the police to view the school inside and out in real time. They would have been able to rerun a camera and quickly identify a backpack left at one of the doors as belonging to the perpetrator, saving the time they spent looking for a second intruder. In each of the SWOT analyses prior to this January, the Police and Fire Departments requested video surveillance, but it was one of those ‘just out of reach’ plans. We can no longer afford to put off these security measures.

$100,000 for classroom locksets!

Our plan is to change the locksets on all the classroom doors so they will be automatically locked when shut and can be opened from the corridor only with a key. Shutting the door... locks the door. This eliminates a lock-down protocol in which the teacher pulls a Velcro strip and ‘tests’ whether or not the door is locked from the hallway. It also eliminates ‘operator error.’ This upgrade is significantly overdue, as many of the current locksets are simply worn out and difficult to ‘key.’ There is an additional bonus in that classrooms will be locked when empty, as well. This makes students’ belongings and the classroom equipment much more secure. As we move to BYOD (bring your own device), and begin to allow students to use their own Kindles, iPads, and such, we’ll need to ensure their equipment is as protected as possible in the classroom.

What is an SRO?

An SRO is a highly-trained police officer who serves as a School Resource Officer. This important addition to our school security is both a preventative and mitigating measure. Because the addition of this Officer to the schools is a Police Department personnel change, it occurs in their budget, not ours. But, it certainly warrants our attention and full support. A School Resource Officer would rotate, unscheduled, throughout the schools. He or she would work closely with students, their teachers, and families on programs such as bullying prevention, D.A.R.E., good decision-making, Internet and social media safety, and so on. The SRO is also another set of eyes, watching how students interact and spotting isolation and students at risk. He or she develops trusting relationships, serves as a strong role model, and taps into the community’s resources as necessary to support students and their families.

How important is the Police Department’s request for a Wireless Backhaul System?

Very! The value of the rapid call notification systems in the schools and the live feeds from the interior and exterior surveillance cameras is lost to us if the police department cannot access these software applications through a wireless system from their patrol cars. They have wanted the Backhaul system for a while because, as we all know, wireless is faster and more reliable. Moments matter!

As you likely have realized, there is nothing we can do which guarantees trouble will not arrive at our doors. However much we agree that a tragedy the scale of Sandy Hook is unlikely, it is still important that we modernize our facilities with upgrades which make sense. It’s important we add a level of security that capitalizes on modern technologies and puts what we’ve learned into practice. The Police have told us again and again that perpetrators look for easy or ‘soft’ targets. The degree to which we look and act prepared (i.e. less ‘soft’) is a significant deterrent.

Our intention is to demonstrate that preparedness in word and deed, affirming your trust in the safety of our facilities while simultaneously conveying to our children that, yes, we do still welcome and value community.

Kevin Hadlock February 27, 2013 at 01:14 PM
Superintendent Lynn McMullin has put together her usual thorough and comprehensive explanation of a major schools initiative, in this case, the SWOT analysis proposals coming before the taxpayers soon in the form of a bond issue (along with many other proposed school and non-school-related expenditures). It would have been helpful, I think, if she had explained that "SWOT" analysis stands for "Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities & Threats". It would have been helpful if she had told us what the cost of the proposed structural changes to the school buildings would be. Of course, what would the cost would be if we, the taxpayers, were NOT to authorize these structural changes? I support the structural changes to the schools proposed in Supt. McMullin's detailed letter. However, I do not support the addition of a "Resource Officer", which, unlike the addition of structural changes, becomes a recurring and perpetual cost. One resource officer covering four schools seems to be a stretch. Anyone looking for a "soft" target could quickly ascertain a pattern to the officer's visits to the schools; further, one resource officer would certainly have paid time off, and then we would need to have "coverage" for the absent resource officer, who would be paid overtime, and would not have the attributes heralded in Ms. McMullin's letter (knowledge of the students, relationships with students/families/teachers, etc.). Frankly, I think it is an unnecessary cost to the taxpayers.
Jody Dietch February 28, 2013 at 03:21 PM
Kevin, the Resource Officer is the DARE officer in town and is already familiar with our schools. I don't believe vacation is an issue since I believe he schedules vacations when school is not in session. One of the important things to note is that there is no "pattern" to his visits and thus anyone looking to create an issue would not be able to ascertain when he would be there. Even if they were to see him leaving, it doesn't necessarily mean he wouldn't be turning around and coming right back to the same school. The police are trained in this type of coverage and I have the faith in them to have the proper coverage for our schools.
Jody Dietch February 28, 2013 at 03:22 PM
One last comment, after December 14, I don't think we can look at this as an unnecessary cost to taxpayers. Sorry to disagree.

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