Many schools in New Hampshire enhanced their security in response to the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. a year ago.
Those new measures come at a big cost to school districts.
And they’re forcing school officials to decide what type of security works for their buildings and their communities.
Even the head of Nashua’s school district needs clearance before he’s allowed into any of the city’s 17 schools.
“Hi, Mr. Conrad. Left door,” the secretary inside Elm Street Middle School says over the intercom.
“Thank you,” replies Superintendent Mark Conrad.
After the secretary at Elm Street Middle School clears Mark Conrad, she lets him into the building.
Built in the 1930s, the school has more than 1,000 students and its front entrance is completely out of view of the main office.
A year ago, the security system that kept Conrad from entering the building wasn’t in place.
Last winter, the district installed locks and intercom systems on all main entrances, including at its 12 elementary schools.
Conrad says it’s no coincidence the project got the green light after what happened in Newtown.
“Last fall, the Board of Education had approved a long-term plan for improving the physical security in the Nashua School District. And with the Sandy Hook tragedy, we made the decision to try to accelerate that.”
In addition to securing the main entrances, the district installed what are called Columbine locks in all schools, allowing teachers to lock their doors from the inside.
And that is just the first phase of what will be a district-wide $2.4 million security upgrade.
Conrad says the work will be finished later in the school year.
Later this year, each school entrance will have what’s called a proximity reader, so only authorized staff can enter using an ID badge.
“It will also include an automated system for locking and unlocking the doors at different times based on when school comes into session and when children go home at the end of the day.”
Nashua is far from the only district in the Granite State to take steps to improve security in response to the Sandy Hook shooting.
School officials in Milford installed panic buttons in all school offices.
In Londonderry, voters in March approved a warrant article to spend $170,000 on a district-wide security upgrade.
“The warrant article really was a result of Sandy Hook,” says Superintendent Nate Greenberg.
He says each of Londonderry’s seven schools now has a card access and key tag system.
“So basically now, all the doors are locked. There are certain entrances at each school where a faculty member can gain access to the building by using their key tag to get in.”
The district also installed panic buttons and a door monitoring system.
“We have sensors on all 263 outside doors.”
Steve Temperino with the state’s Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management says school officials are right to be thinking about ways to keep students safe.
“This is a struggle for schools. This is changing school culture. There may be school systems where the environment is all open, where anybody can walk in from any door at any time. We’re saying the time for that has gone by.”
Earlier this year, Temperino’s department issued a guide for schools on how to assess their security.
The state followed up last month with a list of guidelines for schools.
The report recommends clearing people through the main entrance with buzz-in systems, enhanced surveillance, and ID badges for staff and visitors.
Schools should also develop ways to alert parents during an emergency.
At a minimum, state law already requires every school to have an emergency response plan.
Temperino says his department is now working on creating a database of maps for every school in the state, which he says could be invaluable in the event of an emergency.
But overall, Temperino says school leaders should consider what works for their schools and what works for their budget.
“And that’s not easy. We cannot just put fences and gates and security cameras and have a police officer in the school and think we’ve solved the problem. Because we haven’t.”
But for many schools, security upgrades remain a major financial investment.
Like in Hudson, where the school board approved $130,000 in upgrades to Alvirne High School over the summer.
The project secures the school’s main entrance and adds eight security cameras to the outside of the building, among other changes.
The company that worked on those upgrades with the town was Pelmac Industries of Auburn.
Sales manager Dan Boyce says he’s seen a huge demand for advice on school security needs since the Newtown tragedy.
We’ve brought on an additional three or four installers and an additional sales person right off the bat to kind of meet these needs.”
And Boyce says it’s not just that there’s more demand; it’s where the interest is coming from that’s also changed.
“Since the Newtown situation, we’re seeing a little more activity at the younger age than we had in the past. Before, it was really generated toward the high schools and toward the middle schools.”
Like at Salisbury Elementary School, where over the summer the main entrance was completely reworked.
It was one of several recommendations made by an advisory committee established in Merrimack Valley following the Sandy Hook shooting.
University of New Hampshire Professor Todd DeMitchell says the quick response by so many school districts isn’t surprising.
“We had the same thing that occurred after Columbine. After Virginia Tech, we saw a lot that was going on in the colleges.”
DeMitchell says while some basic levels of security are necessary, it’s important to consider how going too far can impact school climate.
He cautions even things like locked doors and buzz-in systems can’t prevent the worst kinds of violent intruders.
“We know what happened at Sandy Hook. They had that, but Adam Lanza just blasted his way through.”
Back at Elm Street Middle School in Nashua, Principal Mike Frederickson says the students and staff have adjusted to the new security measures.
“I think that’s kind of the society we live in so I think people are comfortable with it. I think they feel more secure with the measures that have been taken than less secure, like something’s happened, that’s why we need to do this.”
And Superintendent Mark Conrad says he realizes the new measures can only go so far in preventing someone intent on harming children.
He believes it was the people working at the school who saved lives at Sandy Hook.
“Because they had many of the same systems in place that we have in place. It was staff knowing what to do and it was coordination with the local police department.”
For parents like Stacy Baxter of Nashua, the changes are welcome.
But she says they say a lot about the world her children live in.
“When we were young, we used to train for tornadoes. It was tornado drills and fire drills,” she says. “And now they’re training first-graders and kindergarteners for if there’s an intruder in the building and what they should do, where they should hide.
“It’s just an unfortunate reflection on where we are.”