School security is complicated, multifaceted

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PROTEST — Students held up their hands in protest during an unsanctioned student walkout at the Oxford Hills Comprehensive High School on March 15. This photo was taken from the Oxford Hills Comprehensive High School Facebook page.

PARIS — School safety and security has become everyone’s business.

A mass shooting at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida on February 14 that killed 14 students and three adults, has sparked debate, outrage, conversation and, in the Oxford Hills School District, a community-wide effort to ensure students can be educated in a safe and secure environment.

“I think what’s really important for me going forward are what are some options we can look at, because quite frankly we have to do something to improve the security of our buildings and ensure the safety of our kids,” Superintendent Rick Colpitts told parents, teachers, students, town officials and others in the standing-room-only SAD 17 Board of Directors meeting on March 19.

Fresh from a barrage of ideas, concerns, accusations and pleas posted on a local social media site only several days after 30-plus students staged an unsanctioned protest on the grounds of the Oxford Hills High School during the school day on March 15, school officials say they welcome the input of the community at large as they renew their efforts to make the school buildings safer.

Students held signs, including this one from a picture posted on the Oxford Hills Comprehensive High School page, to bring awareness to the issues of school security and safety during an un santioned March 15 protest at the high school.

“I’ve heard a lot and learned a lot,” Colpitts said of interaction on the Oxford Hills, Maine Town Square Facebook page that was set up several years ago by Paris resident Dennis Creaser as a forum for conversation. “I think where I’m most excited is the conversation around what can we do about it.”

Political reaction does not necessarily mean solutions, he said.

“We’re going to need some input from all of you in this room,” he said to some 50 people attending the board meeting.

There are a number of issues at stake, some of which will be determined as recommendations by the Policy Committee, before going to the full Board of Directors for a vote and possible implementation.

Issues such as what types of activities will be allowed on school grounds; will political groups be allowed to use school grounds as a forum; will the public be kept aware of all activities that may pose a safety issue; will the school board be asked in the future for input involving events such as the recent student walkout will probably all be on the Policy Committee’s table for discussion.

School security and student safety, will also continued to be addressed as they have been for years through a roundtable of school officials with the assistance of law enforcement, emergency management personnel and others. Some of the information, such as school security plans that have been in place for many years and are updated when needed, and much of the information in the plans will be kept confidential for safety reasons.

Other issues will necessitate funding, most likely at the local level. Those issues become a public discussion and eventually a vote.

Discussions and planning have begun both in the schools and community wide.

Parents organize

This week, Aranka Matolcsy, founder of Citizens for School Safety and Security, said 63 people, from one end of the political spectrum to the other, have joined the newly-formed group, to develop recommendations for each of the district’s eight school buildings. She said the recommendations will be based on research of “cutting-edge technologies” implemented in other comparable school districts that currently don’t exist in the SAD 17 school district buildings.

The recommendations will be presented to the SAD 17 Board of Directors for discussion and possibly a vote.

In a letter read in part at the Board of Directors March 19 meeting by parent Molly Hill and posted by Matolcsy on her Facebook page two days earlier, she detailed the goals of the group as follows:

  • seeking out other analogous groups that are doing similar research so that we are not reinventing the wheel or working in a silo.
  • creating or finding an existing evaluation to be able to take to each school in MSAD 17 to assess strengths and weaknesses in the security infrastructure and protocols.
  • assessing the types and frequency of emergency drills that are conducted.
  • finding grant funding to help support the cost of infrastructural and program improvements.

Additionally, Matolcsy will ask the group to find, or create, a series of objectives for students including reporting bullying, supporting friends who are isolating themselves, seeking support when needed and standards for vigilance in reporting suspicious activities or individuals.

“This is not a process that’s going to happen overnight and it’s going to take some time and commitment of the individuals in this group to carry to fruition,” she wrote in her letter.

“I am very encouraged that around a dozen people are planning to attend the first in-person meeting within the next two weeks to identify priorities and outline action steps,” she told the Advertiser Democrat this week. “The two main issues that have risen among members are access point security and bullying prevention/intervention.”

“The radical shift in needs for school security and safety calls for new and greater involvement of parents and community members, so I started Citizens for School Safety and Security after witnessing several situations at two schools that caused me considerable concern over security protocols,” Matolcsy said.

She said she founded the closed group to be a respectful, non-political forum focused on constructive dialog and feasible solutions.

“Instead of taking a role of simply demanding change from the school board, this group aims to work and build the administration’s capacity to address these issues by conducting research and assessments, seeking grant funding and consulting with experts and similar districts,” she said.

She has also taken to social media to admonish adults who appeared to be bullying each other.

“The profound conflict, however, is that so many of those calling for end to bullying are themselves bullies on social media – disparaging others’ opinions, degrading individuals or whole groups, pointing fingers, blaming, being sarcastic, snide, rude, disrespectful and sometimes downright vulgar,” she wrote on social media in a March 19 posting. “This needs to end if we hope to end bullying in schools. It is critical that we, as adults and leaders in our community, lead our children by example … .”

Matolcsy asked that those, especially online contributors, take a pledge to be respectful and considerate of others in all interactions.

Directors respond

SAD 17 Board of Directors Chairman Ron Kugell said this week that he welcomes input from any group or individual that wants to contribute ideas to improve school safety and security.

But finding a foolproof way to secure the eight school buildings, may be difficult if not impossible and will be expensive.

“Even if we took away every single gun, someone could come into the school with a pipe bomb,” said Kugell, a retired teacher, administrator and chief of police for the town of Oxford.

The ongoing process to improve security in the school buildings involves meetings with school personnel, police, sheriff office and EMA officials who are continuing to talk about school safety and updating school security plans.

“We’re reviewing what we’ve been doing and seeing if we can do better,” he said of plans that are kept confidential.

The Policy Committee will also begin a review of school policy that can improve issues of concern  by school board members, parents and the community at large, said Kugell.

They will review what some parents perceive as a lack of communication when a sanctioned 17-minute silent memorial to the 17 student and faculty members of the Majorie Stoneman Douglas School shooting turned into a protest.

They have also been asked to look at the policy for use of schools grounds. West Paris Director Natalie Andrews has questioned whether the school has set precedence by allowing the students to protest on school grounds. Will that open up the school to a charge of discrimination should a political group wish to use the school or grounds for a protest? she asked.

The Policy Committee, said Kugell, will have to look at whether any proposed new policy addresses not only the concerns of people but also adheres to their Constitutional rights.

“It’s a slippery slope,” he said of the issues that go beyond the “purpose of school,” – teaching.

When it comes to improving security in the school buildings, Kugell said it will take more than just policy.

It will take money, and probably lots of it.

Securing the school buildings is not new. For more than a decade, taxpayers have approved thousands and thousands of dollars to improve school security.

In 2006 and again in 2007, a team of Sun Journal reporters began an investigation of school security in 37 schools, including the Oxford Hills Comprehensive High School by testing doors, walking through hallways, visiting classroom’s, wandering in, and out, of offices in blatant attempts, not to elude, but to be caught, walking into the school. The results were called “dismal” in some of the schools, but they did elicit reaction.

Within 10 days of publication of the investigative piece, former Maine Education Commissioner Susan Gendron called on the state’s emergency preparedness task force to tackle school security.

Two months later a review of improvements begun at the Oxford Hills middle and high schools showed that school officials were looking at options for improved security, including a buzzer and intercom system for each school, the elimination of portable classrooms and additional security personnel.

They were also talking about setting up a security intervention team composed of parents, teachers, community members and possibly students; training staff to confront strangers who enter the buildings; installing classroom window shades at the high school and other security measures.

It was the beginning of a concerted effort to improve school security that today includes locked doors at all the schools, a buzzer entrance system and other measures which have cost thousands of dollars.

Kugell said there is currently pending legislation to provide money for additional lower level threats security issues, but to have a school “armed to the teeth?” “Whose going to pay for it all?” he asked.

“What are we going to take away from education for security,” he asked.

“There only so much the taxpayer will tolerate. lt it all comes down to money.”

Both the SAD 17 Board of Directors meetings and the Policy Committee, which meets at 5 p.m. before the second board meeting of each month, are open to the public.

ldixon@sunmediagroup.net

SIDEBAR

PARIS —When the security and safety of the Oxford Hills School District is impacted, school officials are obligated under school policy to conduct their own investigation regardless of whether law enforcement is conducting a probe of the same incident.

The Oxford Hills School District’s policy says that school officials have the right to discipline a student or students if their actions have an impact on the “usefulness” of the schools, whether the action took place on school grounds, at home or elsewhere.

“There are two investigations that occur simultaneously and both can have a different outcome because the standards of proof are very different,” Superintendent Rick Colpitts explained recently to the Board of Directors at its March 19 meeting when asked who was investigating a recent threat.

“If the police department determines someone has made a threat against the school there is a criminal avenue, through which the District Attorney would be involved,” he explained. “There would be charges and a court case but the school also runs a parallel investigation, which includes information from the police, but they (school officials) don’t have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the person did it.

“We just have to believe that its more likely than not that they did it, in which case we can still discipline, even if the state or DA chooses not to,” he said.

During a two-week period in March, the Oxford Hills School District experienced four events that impacted its security and safety that were made public.

The incidents included the following:

  • On March 13, Oxford Middle School Principal Paul Bickford notified parents via school messenger that a student had threatened another student over social media the previous evening. This information was quickly reported to law enforcement officials, who believed the threat was not credible “at this time.” Bickford said additional police presence was provided as an added measure at each campus on the next day of school “to provide assurances to students, families, and staff.” Colpitts described the incident as a “revenge effort on the part of a student against another student” and added, “the threat was really never against the school just an attempt to get someone else in trouble.” The investigation was ongoing.
  • On March 15, between 150 and 200 students walked out of classes to memorialize 17 students and faculty members of the Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, who were cut down in a February 14 mass shooting. About 33 students remained outside following the 17 minutes of silence and then proceeded, in unsanctioned action, to raise signs and chant protests. They were told to return to class or face disciplinary action, according to remarks on social media from Superintendent Rick Colpitts to parents who later questioned the events.
  • On March 22, four schools, including the Oxford Hills Comprehensive High School, Oxford Hills Middle School, Paris Elementary School and Guy E. Rowe Elementary School were put into lockdown while Norway and Paris police sought and then apprehended an armed individual. There was never a threat directed at the schools, according to a letter from Superintendent Rick Colpitts to the community on the district’s webpage. “The lockdown was implemented out of an abundance of caution,” stated Colpitts.
  • This week, parents were notified that a threat had been made between two students over social media on March 24 that according to a message from High School Principal Ted Moccia, result in an immediate suspension of one student with further disciplinary action pending. The student threatened physical violence on social media against another student on school grounds will be charged with terrorizing, according to Lt. Justin Brown of the Oxford County Sheriff’s Office.

ldixon@sunmediagroup.net