2018-04-06 / Front Page

School district steps up security

By Duke Harrington Staff Writer

KENNEBUNK — In the wake of the Feb. 14 school shooting in Parkland, Florida, RSU 21 has stepped up security measures, with plans to apply for a grant that will allow it to place an armed police officer in all six district schools.

Currently, RSU 21 contracts with the Kennebunk Police Department to place a school resource officer in Kennebunk High School and the Middle School of the Kennebunks.

Ensconced within the federal Department of Justice, the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS), doled out $137 million during the 2017 fiscal year to help municipal police departments hire additional officers, funding up to 75 percent of salaries for three years.

During the April 2 school board meeting, at which Superintendent Katie Hawes tallied what RSU 21 has done since Parkland to enhance security, and what it intends to do in the future, she said the district plans to partner with the Kennebunk and Kennebunkport Police Departments, as well as the York County Sheriff’s Office, to “explore” how it can get on board with the next round of the COPS Hiring Program.

“We have no details right now. It’s simply something we are exploring,” she said.

However, several at the meeting suggested that where the safety of children is concerned, there’s no good reason to wait around for a handout.

“Do we have to wait for a grant? Is there a way to work this into the budget?” asked Kennebunk parent Beth Fawcett. “I know there is a cost to bringing in additional resource officers, but have you considered the cost if we ever have an event like these other schools have had?”

Fawcett referenced the potential need on an emotional level to tear down and rebuild a school where a tragedy has occurred, as Newtown, Connecticut, did following the 2012 shooting that killed 26 at Sandy Hook Elementary School. That’s a cost local taxpayers could ill-afford on top of the recent $56.5 million building renovation bond, she intimated. And even 20 years after the Colorado massacre that kicked off the current wave of violence, at least in the popular consciousness, former administrators of Columbine High School are still facing lawsuits, Fawcett said.

Fawcett urged school board members to place a cop in every RSU 21 school.

“It’s not just a person in your school with a gun,” she said. “They’re not just there protecting our kids, they are there every day talking to our kids. They are meeting with these kids who are troubled, who are withdrawn, who are bullying, etc.”

“I think the presence of the SRO (School Resource Officer) on campus at all times is absolutely critical,” said Joe Bergeon, one of two student representatives on the board of education.

“I know, personally, it makes me feel a lot safer,” he said, referencing the March 20 shooting at Great Mills High School in Maryland, which was stopped by a school resource officer after two students were injured, but before any were killed.

Kennebunk board member Matthew Fadiman, who chairs the budget committee, said money could be found, if his peers choose to follow the course championed by Fawcett.

“We can easily find the resources for things that are that important,” he said. “I’m completely confident the dollars are not the reason why we would not move forward.”

But not everyone was on board with the idea. Kennebunk board member Rachel Phipps, for one, was unequivocal in her opposition.

“I just want to say for the record I do not support bringing more officers into our school,” she said, adding, “What we have is adequate.”

Still, putting more cops on the school payroll was not the most hotly debated topic at Tuesday’s school board meeting.

Hawes said the district is looking into forming a partnership with Sandy Hook Promise, a nonprofit founded by parents and relatives of children lost in that tragedy.

The group would provide RSU 21 with its “Say Something” anonymous reporting system, a 24/7 web app that routes tips to crisis counselors, who then alert anyone from law enforcement to school administrators, depending on the level and immediacy of the perceived threat.

Being alert to threats is important, the Sandy Hook group says, citing studies which claim that 80 percent of school shooters told someone about their plans before perpetrating the crime, while 59 percent reportedly confided in more than one person.

Along with its app, Sandy Hook Promise would provide RSU 21 with training in its Say Something education initiative — designed to teach teens how to recognize the signs and signals of at-risk behavior — and its Start with Hello campaign — which promotes “social inclusion and community connectedness.” The group also would facilitate the founding of SAVE (Students Against Violence Everywhere) promise clubs, run by kids in each school.

But several school board members said they fear those initiatives might backfire, leading students to feel somehow responsible, whether they miss a danger cue, or do everything the Sandy Hook group calls for, and a shooting still takes place.

“It’s a beautiful concept,” said Tanya Alsberg of Kennebunk. “I think all of our kids should do this, but I am really strongly opposed to connecting it directly to our safety program. I feel that has a lot of potential for more harm than good, that kids will feel it’s their fault if they don’t say something.”

“I never want any student to feel that if something happens to someone, that it’s their fault. Not ever,” said Maureen King of Kennebunkport. “These programs are very lofty, but it’s very easy for students to look back and say, ‘Oh, I didn’t have lunch with him, I didn’t do this, or I didn’t do that,’ or whatever.”

King instead returned debate to staging resource officers in the elementary schools.

“It’s important for children to see that a police officer is not some big scary thing,” she said.

“It’s important that we remember that all of these approaches are not (mutually) exclusive,” countered Kennebunk board member Emily Kahn.

“Let’s not just pick one or two things, let’s throw a blanket out there and cover all the bases,” said Maeghan Lovejoy, of Kennebunkport.

Since Parkland, RSU 21 has requested an increased police presence around school grounds, conducted an “Active Shooter Training” drill with local police departments at Kennebunk Elementary School, and made sure that all local law enforcement agencies have access to all school buildings, regardless of jurisdiction.

It has also reminded staff of security protocols and reviewed the Safe Haven School Assessment report commissioned by the state department of education in 2014.

Hawes said she also has included $100,000 in the next school budget to update security cameras district wide and to hire an additional school counselor.

Going forward, Hawes said, officers from all three area departments will conduct so-called “tabletop” exercises to review potential crisis incidents, helping to update procedures to follow in the event of an emergency.

Also, a team to include district facilities director Rob Pearson will be sent to a Protecting our Schools national conference in April.

Hawes noted that a recent meeting of Kennebunkport parents resulted in a six-page document of suggestions landing on her desk. However, all but two of those security enhancement requests are things the district is either doing already, or has recently initiated, she said.

Those two outliers — installing metal detectors and arming some school staffers — “are not things that are recommended by our local (law enforcement) authorities,” she said.

“The bottom line,” Hawes said, “is that when we talked to the three (area) police department, they all said it really all comes down to people — to people connecting with kids, to people being aware of what’s happening with kids and with people responding.”

For that reason, Hawes said, the “No. 1 recommendation” of the Sheriff’s Office, as well as of the Kennebunk and Kennebunkport police departments, was just as Fawcett had urged — to leave no local school without its own dedicated police officer.

After all, Hawes said, should the worst happen, “it’s the first 30 seconds that are critical.”

Staff Writer Duke Harrington can be reached at news@kennebunkpost.com.

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