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WA locks in on school security

School Resource Officer Geoffrey Pavao stands in front of WA.

School Resource Officer Geoffrey Pavao stands in front of WA.

Kavya Desikan

School Resource Officer Geoffrey Pavao stands in front of WA.

Kavya Desikan

Kavya Desikan

School Resource Officer Geoffrey Pavao stands in front of WA.

WA locks in on school security

May 30, 2018

In the wake of recent incidents around the country, such as the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida shooting, and more recently, the one at the Santa Fe High School in Texas, questions regarding security concerns have risen at Westford Academy. Though Westford is ranked by Niche as the sixth safest district in the state, the sudden surge in the number of school shootings in the U.S. tasks schools to improve its safety.

Often, after school shootings, the population is enraged and ready to act in order to prevent another tragedy. The uproar tends to fade away after the initial outburst until the next tragic incident restarts the cycle. However, Westford Academy Principal James Antonelli speaks of Superintendent Bill Olsen’s commitment to students’ safety and continual drive to better the district’s security system.

“And then, all of a sudden, I think people forget [about the shootings]. And I know my superintendent doesn’t forget. He really wants to move this forward,” Antonelli said.

The administration is looking to improve upon the safety measures already in place throughout the district and create new evacuation protocols. Antonelli and Olsen hope to install a new safety feature in the form of a simple door locking system and improve security overall by devising new plans and procedures.

The mechanism is comprised of two plates, one on the actual door, and one on the floor. The lock can click in and activate in seconds, yet hold four thousand pounds of force. It can be released from the outside by a police officer using a tool. The lock can be both installed and disengaged in less than five seconds each.

Antonelli hopes the device will offer simple safety for students who are in their classrooms.

“Having that floor door lock would be much better than trying to barricade with desks and chairs, because if you want to get out of that room, you gotta move all those things, and so forth,” Antonelli said.

However, Antonelli and the administration suffered a setback in their goal to install the locks. State regulations have been set by the Architectural Access Board and conveyed through the State Fire Marshal in Massachusetts which do not allow the locks to be installed.

The school administration is currently working with representative James Arciero, who represents the Westford, Littleton and Chelmsford area, to push for the locks at the state-level.

“Right now, I’m in discussion with the superintendent, and we attempt to continue that discussion with the state Fire Marshal to see what he would recommend for safety for the […] locking devices,” Arciero said.

The state Fire Marshal has a history of disapproving of such locking devices, partially due to the difficulty that officials would undergo in order to enter a locked room. However, the particular lock proposed by Westford can be easily undone by an inexpensive tool. Despite this fact, the state, as of yet, has not approved the locks.

Olsen explains his frustrations with the regulations, comparing the number of school fires to school shootings.

“There are many, many school shootings that have taken place in the last five years; I haven’t heard of a school burning down in the last five years,” Olsen said.

The situation is currently at a standstill, even though Olsen had approved funding and the Westford Police and Fire Chiefs supported the plan. The proposition was to allow students from Nashoba Valley Technical High School to install the locks, and in turn, WA would purchase the units for the Tech.

“This is a need that we have for the safety and security of our students and our staff,” Antonelli said.

Currently, the administration has no alternative for the door locks. The matter remains in the hands of the state Fire Marshal, and his interpretation of the regulations.

“Something has to happen here, to make our students and staff-not only here, but across the country- safer,” Olsen said. “And we can’t keep citing fire regulations and the possibility of buildings burning down when, honestly, they haven’t been burning down.”

Another safety mechanism addresses the concern of each door’s sidelights. The perpetrator at the Sandy Hook Elementary School shot through the glass, an incentive for Westford to install 3m film on the sidelights of all of its doors. As the glass cannot shatter when shot with a bullet, it buys precious time for anyone stuck inside. The film is not bulletproof, but shatter-resistant, and is already installed on the main entrance doors at WA, as well as school office windows.

Over the winter vacation, each piece of glass at the high school was measured to install the film. The film was tested five years ago by the Westford Police Department, using the same weapon as the murderer at Sandy Hook Elementary School. WPS became one of the first school systems in the state to invest in such a film.

“It buys us seconds, or it buys us minutes, and that can make all the difference in the world to the life of a student or a staff member,” said Olsen.

In regards to a much sooner change, Antonelli has requested senior citizen volunteers from the Cameron Senior Center greet visitors at the doors of WA. The twenty-five senior volunteers will be stationed in the main entrance at WA to welcome and to ensure all callers check in at the proper location.

“We’ve felt for some time that we need more of a presence at the entrance of the schools to monitor who comes in, and where they’re going,” Olsen said. “And this person would be a great asset to us in performing that function.”

They will be trained in safety and assured a safe location in the case of an intruder entering the building. Each volunteer will also be provided a walkie-talkie, in the event that they would need to communicate an issue or presence of an intruder. The doors will continue to be locked during the day, adding an additional layer of safety for the volunteers.

“It’s a wonderful opportunity for senior citizens to engage with our school system in a meaningful way, and it would be very helpful for the safety of students and staff at WA,” Olsen said.

Each senior citizen will devote 136 hours of his/her time volunteering at WA. In return, they will receive up to a one-thousand dollar tax relief on property taxes.

Antonelli also stresses the importance of not opening locked doors for visitors from the inside and hopes to discourage students from propping open doors that should technically be sealed.

Over April break, WA was used to host security training for the Police and Fire Departments. It allowed the officers to experiment with different response strategies and work to effectively streamline the communication between officers and other security personnel. The scenarios used the deans, Olsen, the fire chief, the police chief, and Antonelli to locate points of inefficiency.

“Some of the communications weren’t working great, so we fixed those,” Antonelli said.

The funding for the training was provided by the school system and received positive feedback from law enforcement. According to Olsen, the officials found it to be the most valuable training they had received. The trainers followed the officers into the building and provided tips and insight into the crisis response process, focusing on finding the intruder, maintaining their own safety, and saving lives.

“We were very pleased and very proud that we were able to conduct that training,” Olsen said.

The numbering system on the classrooms and stairwell doors proved to be a point of confusion for the officers and slowed down the response times significantly. Adding larger door numbers helped the officers to describe their location to each other, and speed up the process of tracking down a perpetrator. The team identified and solved nuances such as these, which could someday make all the difference.

“It’s little things like that, that can take seconds away from a response,” said Antonelli, who spent the week watching the training and listening to communications over the walkie-talkies.

Over the last few years, A.L.I.C.E. trainings have become the accepted active shooter response in every school in Westford and neighboring towns. The acronym stands for Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter, and Evacuate, a series of measures far more effective in ensuring the safety of students rather than a traditional lockdown or fire drill.

However, A.L.I.C.E. does not always take into account a “barricade, then escape scenario.” For example, if students initially barricade themselves into a classroom, and then find an opportunity to escape, the locks provide a better alternative than A.L.I.C.E.

“So now, if you’ve barricaded yourself in, it’s going to take you that much longer to move all that stuff out of the way when you’ve created this barricade, instead of just: pull that thing [door lock], get out of the building,” said Antonelli, about the streamlined evacuation process that the door locks may provide.

Olsen agrees with Antonelli and concedes the caveats of A.L.I.C.E. can be an inefficient method of keeping students safe, but he notes that the procedure does have merit. Research has proven that having a plan in the event of such a crisis has a significantly greater advantage rather than simple evacuation and chaos.

“It’s better than anything we had before,” Olsen said, “because it’s a strategy for people to follow.”

However, he acknowledges the potential weakness of traditional A.L.I.C.E procedures and believes the barricade method to be risky and ineffective, when compared with the door lock mechanism.

“I am not a proponent of students and staff barricading doors with desks, with file cabinets, with anything else for two reasons,” Olsen stressed.

The first reason, Olsen cites, is an increased exposure to the threat. Shifting around furniture in the classroom leaves students and their teachers vulnerable while an intruder may be just outside the door. The second is the time it takes to barricade a door, as compared to the swiftness of the locking device.

The school also hopes to increase the number of A.L.I.C.E. drills and hopes to practice another one before the end of this school year. The combination of A.P. testing, M.C.A.S., and finals rapidly fills the end-of-year schedule, making it especially hard to take time out of classes for drills.

“We can do some kind of drill, so those underclassmen returning[…]will have one more training under [their] belt for next year,” said Antonelli, who also plans to have another practice in the fall for the new freshman class.

The routine may include a given scenario, meaning that each individual student and classroom would have to decide the course of action best from them, based on their location and the information given. The session will be followed by a debriefing session to analyze the behaviors of different classrooms.

Despite the door-lock initiative being at a standstill, a new evacuation protocol has been devised that helps students escape from the vicinity of WA if a situation requiring evacuation were to arise. The John A. Crisafulli and Colonel John Robinson Elementary Schools have been established as rally points. Students will then be bussed farther away, to the Stony Brook Middle School.

School Resource Officer, Detective Geoffrey Pavao plays a vital role in the safety of Westford Academy and the district. Though the administration hopes to install more SROs, it will be a long process, and they aim for 2019-2020. Individuals at the town meetings on security demanded that there be an officer at each school, not just the high school, which is a much more expensive task.

“I’d love more SROs in the district; I mean, it’s just me here,” Pavao said. “You know, it all comes down to money, a lot of the time, and budgets, and school budgets and town budgets […] I think everyone would love a school resource officer in every school.”

Olsen and the district administration support the initiative to assemble more SROs in the district. Westford Police Chief McEnaney proposed to Arciero that schools in Westford hire retired police officers to act as SROs. The suggestion has its advantages, in that the hired SRO would require a lower salary, and add a level of stability in staffing. Olsen agrees and believes that an SRO in each school is a superior alternative to arming teachers.

“Our schools are not correctional institutions. I expect our teachers to teach children, and to focus on the curriculum, and child development, and not on the use of weapons,” said Olsen, who believes SROs are an important deterrent to school catastrophes.

The main issue with the application of more school resource officers is funding. The town must be willing to grant the schools funding to cover the cost of hiring more security personnel, or adding the locks if they are approved, or any other types of security measures.

“It has to come from somewhere,” said Olsen, who is confident that the initiative has plenty of support from parents.

Parents of Westford have also raised concerns regarding the rather uneven distribution of safety measures throughout the district. The only SRO in the town, Pavao, is at Westford Academy, leaving the other schools less prepared in the event of an emergency. Olsen hopes that eventually, an SRO will be present in every school. Yet, for the time being, he will continue to negotiate and work with officials from each school to prioritize the safety of the students with the resources that are available.

“Every child, and every staff member is equally as important as the other,” Olsen said. “In an ideal world, if we had the money, I would put a school resource officer in every one of our buildings.”

The recent troubled climate in the nation has impacted schools and the learning environment they provide. When comparing the high school setting years ago to its current state, Pavao has noticed many subtle differences, including the new presence of police officers in schools, and a heightened sense of tension.

“I don’t think it’s going to slow anything down, it’s just sad that we have to do it,” Pavao said, speaking of the extra security measures that schools have been implementing recently, quoting a “heightened awareness” that adds to the tension.

Despite setbacks, Olsen, Antonelli, and the officials in Westford continue to make progress towards creating a safer environment at each school in Westford.

“We’re not going to let up on the issue of school security,” Olsen said. “The last thing I want to see happen is some type of school tragedy on my watch. Because I value every single student and staff member in this district, as I value every member of my own family.”

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