Lessons are still being learned on school safety

Superintendent Catherine Latham will step down at the end of the school year. The search is on for her replacement. (File photo)

Designs to fortify schools against mass shooters are becoming increasingly sophisticated, but a veteran school designer said safety ultimately means striking a balance between trust and vigilance.

“You’ve got to practice protocols and use them. The problem is people become trusting and think, ‘Everything is fine,’ and then one of these tragedies happen,” said Boston-based school design project manager Lynn Stapleton.

The tragedy Stapleton, an architect and project manager for more than 30 years referred to is the Feb. 14 Parkland, Fla/, school shooting that left 17 dead. The school had emergency response practices in place and drilled on them hours before the shooting occurred.

Stapleton, a key planner involved in constructing Lynn’s Thurgood Marshall Middle School, said designs for new schools incorporate high technology and zone defense systems for containing threats.

Security systems will be incorporated into the new middle-high school planned for Saugus and relatively new elementary, middle and high schools in Peabody, Revere and Marblehead include security features.

Discussions on building new schools in Lynn as well as Marblehead and Swampscott where town officials are also looking at the age and condition of existing schools will include security.

The Florida shooter, a former student, managed to enter the school where police said he shot students and faculty.

Stapleton said cutting-edge school security design planning focuses on how to control entry into schools.

Door alarms and security cameras were once considered adequate measures for barring unwanted persons. But Stapleton said the newest school designs feature a two-tier entryway system with entryways opening onto secure vestibules outfitted with doors opening onto school hallways and controlled by security monitors.

Lynn School Superintendent Dr. Catherine C. Latham outlined Lynn public school security measures in a letter to parents in the wake of the Florida school shootings.

“Our schools are equipped with inside and outside cameras that are directly accessible to the Lynn Police Department, visitor access systems that provide for conversation and identification of visitors before outside doors are opened, key card access systems for employee use, and protocols that photograph and support positive identification of school visitors once inside. All classroom doors have safety locks and all schools are provided multiple two-way radios for instantaneous communication among staff,” she stated in the letter.

Stapleton said new school projects in Boston include designs to make part of the school’s exterior bullet proof. High-tech classroom door windows are designed to prevent someone from looking into the classroom by changing window glass tint from transparent to opaque when an alarm is activated.

Alarm designs in some new schools also activate systems segregating the school into zones to cordon off a threat. But Stapleton said the human factor is the key to making school security systems work and, ultimately, save lives.

Latham last week assured parents vigilance is a top priority in Lynn schools.

“We work hand-in-hand with Police Chief Michael Mageary, our own School Safety and Security Liaison Officer Oren Wright and the City of Lynn Emergency Management Team and have instituted an extensive array of safety and security policies, practices and protocols. We have regularly scheduled fire and lockdown drills, multi hazard evacuation plans, medical emergency response plans and active shooter plans. All plans and protocols are available in all schools,” she stated in her letter.

The Associated Press in the wake of the Florida shooting published an essay by The Conversation, an independent and nonprofit source of news, analysis and commentary from academic experts, examining the pros and cons of school security designs.

“While some of these measures seem sensible, overall there is little empirical evidence that such security measures decrease the likelihood of school shootings. Surveillance cameras were powerless to stop the carnage in Columbine and school lock-down policies did not save the children at Sandy Hook,” the essay stated.

The writers went on to raise the question of how increased security in schools alters how educators and students view each other and how they view the learning process.

Latham in her letter said communication, cooperation and vigilance are the key ingredients in Lynn’s school safety formula.

“I want everyone to know that our safety strategies are among the best and are constantly being updated and reviewed,” she wrote.

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