SCHOOL COMMITTEE NEWS: Committee Discusses Metal Detectors, Other School Safety Measures

WILMINGTON, MA — Woburn Street Principal Jeff Strasnick, Chair of the Wilmington Public Schools District Safety Committee, recently provided the School Committee with an update on his group’s efforts over the past year.

The Committee consists of 20 members, including district administration, principals, teachers, nurses, an educational assistant, a secretary, the Coordinator of Behavioral Health, and the CARES Program Coordinator, plus police and fire personnel.

The Committee has recently completed several important tasks, including:

  • The district’s emergency response guide has been updated and distributed to all staff across the district.
  • Safety buckets, with resources needed in case of a sustained lockdown, were distributed to staff across the district.
  • An additional ALICE Drill was added for both Early Childhood Centers, so now the Boutwell and Wildwood practice in both the fall and the spring.
  • A reunification plan has been created for controlled evacuations at each school.

The Committee is continuing to make progress in several areas, including:

  • Materials and resources to implement a controlled reunification following an off-site evacuation need to be purchased.
  • An inventory of school needs for securing classrooms must be conducted. Walkthroughs are currently being scheduled with police and fire to assess the needs of each building.
  • Resources will continued to be added to each classroom’s safety buckets.

The Committee will soon be focusing on the following tasks:

  • Create a second reunification plan with a second evacuation site.
  • Continue to solicit feedback from staff and students following ALICE drills.
  • Explore the possibility of providing a district-wide retraining of all stff in ALICE procedures. (New staff receive ALICE training during their annual orientation.)
  • Explore the need to conduct another district-wide parent informational night on ALICE and school safety programs. (Several School Committee members supported this idea.)
  • Research and implement new safety procedures and protocols as needed.
  • Expand the Committee by adding an IT staff member.

Metal Dectors & Other Measures

The School Committee then heard from Lt. Scott Sencabaugh of the Wilmington Police Department. Sencabaugh is widely respected around the state as an expert in school safety and ALICE. He served as the NEMLEC STARS Commander and as a member of the Governor’s Task Force on School Safety and Security.

“[Lt. Sencabaugh] has been instrumental in everything we’ve done with the district safety committee and ALICE. We appreciate everything he’s done, along with the police and fire departments,” said Interim Superintendent Paul Ruggiero.

Sencabaugh noted that Wilmington has access to portable metal detectors and X-Ray machines through NEMLEC (Northeastern Massachusetts Law Enforcement Council) on an emergency basis. He suggested they work best when there is a need for a controlled entry or exit in an emergency.

“Permanent installation warrants a lot of discussion and consideration amongst the school committee and the principals within their building. It’s a large expense,” said Sencabaugh. “It’s not just the cost of the equipment, but you have to staff it… I think you’d incur having to add staff to run it.”

In his experience, Sencabaugh noted that some control entries at schools can take up to two hours.

“Imagine doing that everyday. I’m not saying you shouldn’t do it, but you need to really slow down and think how it will reshape your school day,” cautions Sencabaugh. “What would it look like? Who would staff it? How long would it take to get children and staff in and out? Are you scanning staff? Visitors? Parents?”

“You’d need a focal entry point for each building.  You’d really, really, really need to ensure that every perimeter door was not open,” added Sencabaugh. “Otherwise, you might as well not even have [metal detectors] and it completely defeats the whole system.”

“For me, the more bang for the buck is investing money into developing programs, mental health programs, identifying students at risk, training staff, and doing large-scale drills to test your policies and procedures,” said Sencabaugh.

School Commtitee member Peggy Kane recalled that when she was a teacher at Medford High, they installed an expensive metal detector system in the lobby, but had trouble controlling entry from the building’s other 46 doors.  The system wound up never being used.

“We really need to think about things and not make silly, reactionary decisions,” said Kane.

“How do we offer more security at the times when the school day is beginning or ending and the doors are constantly opening?,” asked School Committee member MJ Byrnes.

Sencabaugh noted that fire codes and regulations can make it more difficult to protect students during such times. (Bullet proof glass, for instance, is often highly flammable.) Sencabaugh says there needs to be a discussion at the state level as it relates to school building designs to maximize student safety without creating a prison atmosphere.

Sencabaugh praised the partnerships between the school system and public safety.

“Everyone is always there to help each other,” said Sencabaugh, noting not all communities are fortunate to see such collaboration. “The important thing during an emergency is what have you been doing when there is no emergency to prepare for one.”

What About Armed Guards Or Arming Teachers?

During audience comments, Wilmington Apple asked School Committee members and Lt. Sencabaugh there thoughts on having an armed guard at each school or actually arming teachers with a weapon.

“The School Committee needs to be careful because some of these our bigger national, political issues, and we’re not a political entity in that we’re going to argue for a particular national cause,” responded School Committee member Julie Broussard. “We may have our individual opinions. I’m not going to share mine this evening because I don’t think it’s appropriate for me to do so. If my constituents have an individual question for me, they’re welcome to reach out to me.”

School Committee Chair Steve Bjork concurred with Broussard’s comments, and no other members spoke on the topic.

Lt. Sencabaugh, speaking for himself and not the school district or the Police Department, chose to respond to the question about arming teachers.

“There is a tremendous responsibility to cariryng a firearm. In a school, you’re there as an educator to teach,” said Sencabaugh. “Police goes through 26 weeks of training… There’s a massive responsibility to carrying a firearm and being prepared to possibly use it one day.”

“As a police officer, if I entered a school with an active shooter, I have to make very, very quick decisions under a lot of stress. If I enter that situation and am unclear who the buy guy is… that’s a recipe of a lot of problems,” he added.

The discussion concluded with the Committee thanking Lt. Sencabaugh for his commitment to school safety and guidance he provides to the district.

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