District mulling $5 million  in safety measures

District mulling $5 million in safety measures

(Mass.) While physical security features such as door locks and surveillance cameras can help to keep students safe and deter would-be criminals, Worcester Community Schools should take a broader approach to school safety that includes much more community engagement.

That’s one of several recommendations the district’s school committee will consider this week as it begins to evaluate which of more than $5 million in safety measures offered in a professional security audit it can implement.

“A safe and secure school environment does not simply involve the latest technology devices. Rather, a broader view focused on culture and climate and the impact of internal and external events throughout the City is necessary,” consultants from the security design firm Good Harbor Techmark wrote in a report for WCS.

“Parents and students must play an active role and share in this responsibility as opposed to just faculty and administration,” the report continued. “Making the school not only a destination for education, but transforming it into a community asset and an integral part of the fabric of the community, is necessary to building a foundation for safety and security.”

Districts across the country are grappling with how to keep their campuses secure and students safe as several high profile school incidents this year alone have kept the issue at the forefront of education policy discussions.

The Worcester schools committee – the equivalent of a district board of trustees elsewhere – last spring commissioned the $84,281 security audit following a series of weapons violations by students at two district high schools and in the face of rising teen violence within the city, according to previous news reports.

The 30-page report submitted Nov. 30 suggests that the district “immediately implement” some $1 million worth of “critical” improvements, from hiring an emergency management administrator responsible for coordinating all security efforts to redefining what it means to be a “safe school” in order to encourage community-wide buy-in and support for the schools.

To accomplish the goal of community-wide support for school safety, the GHT report suggested that district leaders foster relationships with local families, residents and city officials and encourage them to “take ownership of their surroundings (adopt a school) and assist each neighborhood school with maintaining the property and helping to prevent crime.” Specific recommendations include the district:

  • Expanding outreach and use of community leaders, social groups and other locally-based community groups to increase support for students and neighborhood programs, such as:
  1. Utilizing community groups for grant writing support, translation services and other curriculum development
  2. Support to teachers to aide in understanding the ethnic culture, customs and traditions.
  3. Providing community based groups with a clear expectation on curriculum so they can provide the right after school tutoring and academic assistance.
  4. Expanding playgrounds and playing fields and access to school play areas.
  • Streamlining the requirements for developing and implementing after-school programs. Doing so will enable the district to capitalize on community partners who want to become involved but quickly lose interest after exhaustive bureaucratic implementation processes.
  • Opening lines of communication with the city so that the district is consulted about actions that will have “second and third order effects” on the area school, i.e., city housing changes and enforcement that may disrupt student populations.
  • Utilizing parent volunteers for crossing points, reception duties and monitoring functions.
  • Encouraging parent/teacher information sharing, including effective use of social media tools to share information for parents new to the district or a school.

The consulting team pointed out that the “overwhelming response” of stakeholders who reported feeling safe on WPS campuses attests to district security efforts to date, including having resource officers at secondary schools, frequent execution of hazard drills and use of a video cameras both at school sites and on busses.

But, they said, though the district’s current safety and security initiatives are “positive, and in some cases exceeding best practices amongst similar districts,” opportunities for improvement exist.

For example, while district schools conduct “and even exceed” the number of required fire , lock-down  and medical emergency drills, the events are “basic and held at times convenient for those involved.”

Fewer, more robust and spontaneous drills involving inter-agency coordination will provide greater benefit in the event of a real-life scenario, auditors said.  

Further, the district should begin the process of incorporating into its emergency drills Department of Homeland Security, State of Massachusetts and other best-practice recommendations for Run, Hide, Fight/ALICE-type (Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter, Evacuate) response based actions.

Other “critical” improvements the district should quickly address include improving security measures at main entrances to eliminate unfettered access to main school areas, upgrading interior door locks and improving dysfunctional alarms on exterior perimeter doors.