Superintendent Olsen to look at WPS security

This display shows what administrative assistants in the front office of WA see when someone requests to be buzzed into the building.

By Alex Gounaris
Staff Writer &
Ethan Walshe

School security has come into question in the past week after the mass shooting that took place Friday in Newtown, Connecticut. Superintendent of the Westford Public Schools Everett “Bill” Olsen has been flooded with emails and calls from concerned parents regarding the state of security of their children’s schools.

In a recent interview, Olsen outlined a number of security measures that he would like to see implemented into schools across Westford. They are realistic goals and where he sees school security moving in the future.

One of the first items on Olsen’s agenda is to have a school security expert come to Westford and survey each and every school. From here, the security expert will report what changes in security they deem necessary to maintain the safety of the Westford Public Schools.

Olsen has already contacted the Middlesex County District Attorney’s office and requested contact information so that this expert can be sent out as soon as is possible. Given how recent the mass shooting in Newtown still is, security experts are in high demand, and the certainty of an expert’s arrival is still unknown.

Regardless, Olsen has a number of safety measures already in mind that he would like to see implemented. Many new regulations have been laid out for Westford Academy, and the safety measures at the elementary and middle schools levels will be similar.

Specifically, doors are to remain shut, at all school levels. Previously, when a parent came to drop off their child early, which is offered at the elementary levels, they were free to simply walk in and leave their child. This will not be the case any longer. Doors will remain locked and someone will be posted at them during these early arrival periods to oversee children coming to school.

After school hours, when various after-school programs take place at the elementary schools, certain areas will not be accessible. This is similar to what is being done at WA, where the second floor will be off limits after 5:00 p.m.

Administrative assistants will also be more vigilant when allowing someone into the building. They will be careful to observe each visitor’s behavior, dress, demeanor, and whether or not they may be carrying a backpack or anything else that could be deemed suspicious. If the administrative assistants have any doubts about someone trying to enter the school, they are encouraged to call the police.

Olsen is in favor of installing panic buttons in the schools’ main offices with direct lines to the police department. This would enable staff to discreetly alert law enforcement of any threat on school grounds.

Additionally, Olsen is not sure as to whether or not metal doors should installed to replace the existing glass ones or if metal detectors will be necessary. Many suggested security reforms remain hindered due to a security expert not being accessible at the moment, but Olsen needs to ensure the effectiveness of these new ideas.

“I need to know in terms of structural and physical changes to the buildings, exterior or interior, what it is I need to do to make these schools safer,” said Olsen.

Lastly, Olsen believes that cameras may be seen in schools in the not-too-distant future. This was something he had initially proposed five or six years ago but it was not approved at that time.

Of course, money is a huge factor in implementing any of these proposed changes to school security. Being that the schools in Westford are public institutions, any funding is a direct matter of appropriation of taxpayer dollars.

“This is not like the private sector where we have millions floating around … this is the public sector where everything has to be voted … and that takes time,” Olsen explained.

Any plans regarding funding are brought before a finance committee for review. From there, additional funding would need to be retrieved from a reserve fund, and any major structural changes to school buildings would need to be incorporated in a capital plan. The purpose of a capital plan is to determine where funding is necessary.

“There are many parents, and understandably so, that have emailed me saying ‘we’d like you to put police officers in every building and metal detectors’, the problem is very few towns could afford [this]…I don’t think any town could afford to put police officers in every school,” said Olsen.

Because Olsen has not met with a security specialist, nor have any discussions taken place regarding funding for anything the expert may suggest, it is unclear at this time when any major changes such as alterations to building structure or design will take place. Olsen hopes that this can be done as soon as possible, but he of course needs to meet with a security expert to determine what is necessary.

As previously mentioned, this process can be slow, but Olsen believes that it absolutely needs to be done the right way the first time that it is done, otherwise he may be seen as being negligent.

“We’ve got six thousand reasons to be damn sure we make these buildings as safe as possible,” said Olsen, referencing the approximately 5300 students and 700 members of faculty in the Westford Public School system.

Olsen also spoke of how this is not simply a matter of looking at how secure schools are, but it is also a matter of having the larger discussion regarding gun control and mental health issues. Moving forward, Olsen would like to see increased vigilance regarding someone who appears to be experiencing troubles with their mental health.

“Mental health issues … need to be placed on the front burner,” said Olsen.

On the matter of gun control, Olsen also took a stance. While he mentioned that this is certainly a time for grieving and politics should wait, it will absolutely enter the national discussion in the coming weeks, as it already has.

“We have to do something about guns … we’ve all heard that argument that ‘guns don’t kill people, people kill people’ but you know what? Guns have a lethal effect and that’s the reality of it. Assault weapons don’t have any business being in the hands of anyone other than law enforcement officials and the military,” said Olsen.

The Sandy Hook tragedy has sent a nationwide shockwave throughout communities and schools. The motivation for changes and improvements to school security is higher now than ever before, and Westford is no different. Olsen plans to do everything that is necessary to makes sure the schools over which he presides are safe for all staff and students.

“Quite honestly, I will sleep better at night if we have whatever enhancements we can bring to the buildings, and I’m sure every other superintendent across the country is pretty much saying the same thing,” said Olsen.