Friday, September 6, 2013

Security upgrades change appearance of school entrances - By Elizabeth Richards

Security upgrades in the Windham schools have changed the way visitors can gain access to the buildings, increasing the level of security for these buildings. Bill Hansen, director of facilities and properties for RSU14, said that the school department is transitioning from having very open buildings, where visitors had to be trusted to check in at the office, to more secure buildings with controlled access when students are present.

The project is a result of a Community Oriented Policing Services grant that was awarded to RSU14 in September of 2011. The $165,450 grant paid for $150,000 of physical plant changes, as well as a risk assessment and staff crisis management training, said Hansen.

“Summer has been a mad dash to make the changes to the physical plant,” said Hansen. It was a large task, indeed. The high school, primary school and Manchester school now all have visitor vestibules that are connected to their offices. When visitors enter, they must speak through a “teller” window to staff before they are allowed access to the building. The middle school has an entry lobby in the front, and one in the back, and visitors communicate with the office via an Aiphone, which has both audio and video, in order to gain access. This is due to the placement of the middle school office in the interior of the building. 

Hansen said they looked at reconfiguring the middle school office at the same time as these security upgrades were occurring, but the $100,000 cost was prohibitive at this time. Field Allen School, which now houses sixth graders, does not have a visitor waiting area. Visitors must first check in at the middle school, and then communicate via the Aiphone at Field Allen, where staff will already be expecting them, Hansen said.

Although the physical changes are significant, one of the goals in the project, said Hansen, was to try and make the new entrances look as if they had always been that way. 

The doors at all the schools have been locked since the tragedy occurred at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut in December of 2012, Hansen said. This new process for visitor entry adds another layer of security to the buildings. Student doors will be unlocked at arrival and dismissal, and an automated system will lock the doors for the remainder of the school day, said Hansen. 

After hours, some doors will need to be unlocked to allow for community access, since the school, a public building, is used for many afterschool activities and events. The goal isn’t to discourage that kind of use, Hansen said, but to control who is entering the building when there are students present.

There is also a shift occurring from a key system to an electronic access system, where staff will use key cards to gain entry to the building. There will be a separate card reader for student IDs at the high school, so that juniors and seniors with privileges can leave campus during free periods and re-enter using their ID badge. Because there are also cameras at each entrance, students will not be able to use another student’s badge to gain entry.  

The extensive camera system installed throughout the school buildings allows building administration, as well as Hansen, to monitor activity everywhere in the buildings. Hansen can even do so from his desk at central office. Each entrance has a camera, as well as an Aiphone, so that the office can see anyone entering the buildings. Prior to this year, some schools didn’t have any video access, said Hansen. 

“Our focus is on access control and video coverage,” Hansen said. The project is in the start up phase, he said. Cameras are up and running, which was the first step. Next will be automating the doors, which is happening now, and then they will move to full card access. “It’s been going pretty well. There’s been a learning curve as I’m getting to learn the system, how it all works and getting the programming set up. We’re all working hard together to make it happen,” he said. 

Because they will transition to the automated system over time, he added, they can learn as they go and address any issues that arise. The goal is to have the system fully operational sometime in October, said Hansen.
Hansen said that many school systems are moving in the direction of more controlled access to their buildings.  

The initial risk assessment was conducted in spring of 2012, and suggestions from that included the physical changes as well as staff training. The school department is working with Scott Parker, a certified emergency manager based in Bethel, to conduct this training.

Parker said he didn’t have to do much in the way of initial security assessment due to the risk assessment that had already been completed. He conducted a hazard analysis, not only of the school, but of the surrounding area, then conducted training for administrators and leadership staff. At RSU14, the staff asked to be trained to a higher level than what is required for their positions, said Parker.

Currently Parker is working on developing a plan and protocols to follow. Then, he will train the School Emergency Team (SET) for each school. Teacher training will occur, culminating in a “tabletop” exercise, which is a facilitated discussion on a specific potential scenario.

Parker said another element is making sure that the 911 center in Windham has all of the critical information that they might need from the plan. In the fall, he said, he will conduct a drill at one of the schools.

The physical changes at the schools have added another level of defense, according to Parker, but that alone isn’t enough. “If you don’t know the protocols or what to do, it doesn’t make any difference if there’s a lock on the door,” said Parker.

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