The school security in Oakland-based Regional School Unit 18 will be reviewed and strengthened in the wake of the Sandy Hook school shootings, according to Superintendent Gary Smith.

Immediately after the Connecticut shootings, local police provided an increased presence at schools in the district, which includes Belgrade, China, Oakland, Rome and Sidney.

“It was just comforting,” Smith said. “I know a lot of people felt reassured that we had our police officers out and about.” On Dec. 14, 27 people, including 20 children, six Sandy Hook School staff members and the shooter’s mother, were killed in Newtown, Conn.

In the long term, Smith said, the district will consider a wide range of security measures, including cameras and buzzer-entry main entrances.

Smith said that the district is not alone in its reaction to the shootings.

“I’m sure this is happening across the country,” he said. “There are a lot of people who are just sickened by what happened at Sandy Hook.”

The school shooting prompted state Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen to ask for a “top-to-bottom review” of anything that the state could do to improve school security, according the education department Spokesman David Connerty-Marin.

The week after the shooting, Connerty-Marin said, Bowen attended a monthly meeting of an interagency working group that regularly reviews the broader issue of emergency preparedness in Maine’s schools.

Connerty-Marin said Bowen didn’t give a specific deadline to the group, but “he did make clear it was something of importance to him and that should be a priority.”

He said that it’s not the state’s role to make recommendations on specific security features such as cameras or buzzer-entry systems.

“Every school is different,” he said. “The resources available in the community are different.”

Connerty-Marin said the traction could result in the accomplishment of long-delayed security upgrades.

“As awful as the circumstances are, it’s an opportunity to revisit them while people are focused on the issue so that if there is a need, now might be a good time to represent that need.”

Rather than dictate a specific set of security protocols, Connerty-Marin said, the state has for the past few years required each district to come up with its own emergency preparedness plan in conjunction with emergency management and law enforcement agencies at the county and local levels.

The working group also can effect change by recommending legislation or changes in the way that state-funded schools are designed.

For example, while there is no requirement that schools implement buzzer-entry entrance policies, state-funded schools are now designed with that security feature in mind, which has the effect of encouraging more schools use them, Connerty-Marin said.

In RSU 18, Smith said the shooting has prompted a fresh look at security from an established districtwide safety committee, which continually reviews security procedures at area schools.

“If you look at (it), you have a fairly good system in place. How do you take it to the next level?” Smith said. “How do you make it an improvement project?”

One component of the response will involve a physical inspection of each school building by administrators, local police and the sheriff’s department.

Smith said that during the inspection, which will take place over the next four to six weeks, he expects to find relatively minor flaws, such as an isolated door that is not secure or visitor sign-in procedures that are not being followed consistently.

“When I go into a building, I’m technically a visitor, and I’ve been guilty of not doing that,” Smith said. “Procedures that we’re taking for granted, we’re becoming more aware of.”

Smith said the shooting also raises new issues about how teachers can implement a lockdown effectively.

“Say you lock your classroom door, but if you have a connecting door to another classroom that’s not locked, is it really a lockdown?” he said.

The safety committee will consider, or at least talk about, a wide range of potential security upgrades, Smith said. In addition to buzzer-activated entry doors and security cameras, the district will consider issuing student IDs and being stricter about the wearing of employee badges.

According to the U.S. Department of Education, teachers wear badges at about two thirds of schools nationally.

Security cameras are more commonly used at schools with upper-grade levels, with 84 percent of high schools, 73 percent of middle schools and 51 percent of elementary schools using cameras, according to the department.

Other types of security measures are far less common, with only 2.4 percent of elementary schools requiring their students to wear identification badges and less than 2 percent of elementary schools using metal detectors.

While Smith said the school will remain vigilant, he said he is also realistic about the school’s limitations in preparing for random acts of violence.

“We can do everything that we can possibly do, but bad things are still going to be able to happen,” he said. “I pray that they never happen again, but we live in a very different world.”

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling — 861-9287
mhhetling@centralmaine.com