In the state’s newest high school, now going up in Sanford, the hallways don’t offer any place for a shooter to hide. Classroom doors lock from the inside. And when the school opens later this year, 100 cameras mounted throughout the building can be monitored remotely by police 2 miles away.

That’s how schools are being built in the era of school shootings like the one Wednesday in Florida that left 17 people dead.

But Sanford Superintendent David Theoharides still isn’t sure that the new building and all the lockdown drills will prevent violence.

“The bottom line is, I don’t know what you actually do to prepare for it,” he said.

He’s not alone. Educators across the state say each report of a school shooting sends a ripple of apprehension through their communities.

“You wake up every morning hoping this isn’t something you have to respond to,” said Steven Bailey, a former teacher and superintendent who is now executive director of the Maine School Management Association.

As evidence, it was just hours after the Florida shooting that South Portland police arrested a student as he walked to school Thursday morning, for allegedly posting a social media message on Snapchat about “shooting up the school.” Officials determined there was no threat to the school, but the 15-year-old student was charged with terrorizing and carrying a concealed weapon. He had a knife when he was arrested before entering the school, police said.

On Tuesday, students at Cony High School in Augusta and Caribou Middle School were cited for terrorizing at their schools, one for an alleged threat involving a firearm and one for an alleged bomb threat.

And late Thursday, Topsham police said they were aware of a possible threat of violence in the School Administrative District 75 system. District officials said police planned to provide an increased presence Friday at Mt. Ararat High School.

MANY UPGRADES TO SCHOOL SECURITY

Maine schools went through a wave of security upgrades after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, in December 2012 that left 26 students and teachers dead.

The Florida shooting was the nation’s deadliest school shooting since Sandy Hook. At the time of the Newtown shooting, state education officials in Maine urged all schools to update their security procedures. By law, Maine school districts must have comprehensive emergency plans, hold regular lockdown drills and review security plans with school boards every year.

Security protocols vary depending on the school district, the type of school and, in some cases, the year in which a school was built. Newer schools tend to have more built-in safety measures.

Specific security measures are confidential, but many schools adopted similar measures, such as adding video and buzzer systems to all school entryways, adding specialized door locks operated with electronic swipe cards, trimming vegetation to improve sight lines, and painting numbers at school entry/exit doors on the outside of buildings to assist emergency personnel if they respond to an incident.

Theoharides, the Sanford superintendent, said shootings like the one in Florida reinforce why schools train students and teachers how to react in similar situations.

The district does lockdown drills with students roughly every month and a half at each school, he said. Teachers turn off the lights and block windows in doors with posters. Staff members bang on classroom doors to make sure students and teachers keep them closed and locked as they’re trained to do.

“You squirm and say this is why we have people sign in. We also know at the back of our minds that we don’t have bulletproof glass in the building,” Theoharides said. “It’s why we say our prayers when we practice these things.”

Lewiston Superintendent Bill Webster said even bulletproof glass won’t truly address the issue, given the various mass shootings nationwide.

“This illustrates that no one is 100 percent safe,” Webster wrote in a letter Thursday to the school community. “Dealing with mental health, gun availability and many concerns around firearms are societal issues far beyond the scope of individual school districts.”

He said each shooting, and review of safety measures, ups the ante for educators.

“Every incident further raises the bar on what our response should be as well as the very notion of what an educational environment should look like,” he wrote. “Should, for example, we have bulletproof glass and monitored metal detectors in every school? And, when that may prove insufficient, should there be armed guards at every door? And, once our schools become prisons in the name of safety, what is the impact on education?”

At the current Sanford High School, visitors walk inside to the front office and teachers can only lock their classroom doors from the outside.

The new $100 million high school, paid for almost entirely by the state, was designed with security in mind. In the hallways, there are no places for a gunman to hide and see down an entire hallway. Doors are placed at the entrance to each school wing to “slow the bad guys down,” Theoharides said.

Visitors will sign in with office staff in a secure vestibule before they are allowed into the school, cameras will allow police to see inside the building without being there, and teacher offices have windows facing lounge areas to allow them to better see students.

COUNSELING TROUBLED STUDENTS

But education experts say preventing school violence involves more than door locks and armed school resource officers, particularly in light of reports of shooters having mental health issues.

Social workers, nurses, guidance counselors, mental health specialists and food service workers can all play a part in spotting a student in crisis.

“You never know what’s going to be the trigger,” said Bailey, at the school management association. “It could be a social worker or it could be a bus driver who could identify a problem, (asking themselves) ‘What’s a little bit off in this student I’ve been seeing on a regular basis?’ ”

Although Maine schools have spent money adding security, some have been forced to cut counselors or social workers because of tight budgets. Last year, a last-minute budget deal cut all state funding for school-based health clinics, and legislation has been introduced this session to restore it.

Sen. Rebecca Millett, D-Cape Elizabeth, drew a connection between overall state fiscal policy and the need for services that could prevent school violence.

“Our schools are not staffed at the right level for guidance counselors,” said Millett, a member of the Legislature’s Education and Cultural Affairs Committee. “There’s a lot of resistance because it costs money. Every time there is a tax cut, they are cutting revenues we need to support these services.”

SCHOOLS OPPOSE GUNS ON CAMPUS

The committee heard from several school officials about safety last month, when it held a public hearing on a bill that would allow people picking up or dropping off students at schools to have unloaded guns in the car. In public testimony, school officials vigorously opposed it, saying that any gun spotted on campus would trigger a lockdown and emergency response.

Millett said Thursday that the Florida shooting solidified her opposition to the bill.

“Our educators and our law enforcement say guns have no place on school grounds, period,” she said. “Certainly these repeated shootings at schools show there is no room for discussion.”

Currently, not only are guns prohibited on campus, but some Maine schools prohibit clothing with images of guns or weapons, or photos of weapons in yearbooks or other publications. Last year, Bonny Eagle High School in Standish refused to publish a yearbook photo showing a student holding a shotgun.

Schools also are required by law to have “re-entry” plans for any expelled student. Some schools require counseling, tutoring or community service as part of that process.

TALKING WITH STUDENTS ABOUT FEARS

Several superintendents said they planned events Thursday to help students deal with the news of the Florida shooting.

The most important message is “don’t bury it,” said Gorham Superintendent Heather Perry.

“The first things to talk about are reassuring students they are as safe as they can possibly be in our schools,” she said.

In South Portland, students were dealing with both the Florida shooting and the news that a fellow student was arrested.

“The wonderful thing about adolescents is that somebody in the group will always bring up what’s on their mind,” said South Portland Superintendent Ken Kunin. “We need to be ready to answer their questions and to engage in conversation about what they’re thinking about.”

Kunin said the district made sure staff had the facts about the South Portland student so they could be ready to answer questions, and teachers and guidance counselors were on the lookout for students who seemed particularly nervous or anxious.

“Students who saw something said something,” he said. “That’s a message we really want to make sure gets out.”

During an assembly Thursday at Waterville High School to honor the students and teachers killed in Florida the day before, student Sage Hafenecker offered an impassioned request of her classmates before calling for a moment of silence.

“Yesterday, on Valentine’s Day, a tragedy struck a high school not so different from ours. … I’m worried because we walk around everyday oblivious to the fact that it could have happened to us. The students didn’t think it would be them or their friends going through this, the faculty members didn’t think it would be the students they taught, and parents didn’t think they would find this out or find out they lost a child.

“Do one thing today. Reach out to your classmates and tell them that you care,” she said. “No one should feel alone in this school.”

Some school officials said they wanted to reassure students and families without being alarmist.

“One thing I didn’t want to was to be reactionary and do lockdown drills today, because that would jump anxiety with our kids,” said Chad Kempton, the principal of Gardiner Area High School in Maine School Administrative District 11. Instead, teachers used a class period to talk to students about the Florida shooting and to review the schools’ plans for emergencies, including those that require a lockdown or evacuation.

In Biddeford, Assistant Superintendent Christopher Indorf sent a letter to colleagues about allowing students to express their feelings and to ask questions.

“I have no doubt that scores of students have seen the aftermath of the shooting dozens of times, from every possible angle, frame by painful frame,” Indorf wrote.

ALERT TO SOCIAL MEDIA BEHAVIORS

Social media also is playing a big role, as several cellphone videos of the Florida shooting have been circulating, as have photos and videos made by the Florida shooter. Biddeford teachers are talking to students about what to do if they spot something concerning online, Superintendent Jeremy Ray said.

School officials said they will emphasize the need to report suspicious social media posts to adults.

“It’s a lot like suicide issues,” Perry said. “We encourage students to be up front, and if they are concerned at all about a peer, to let us know.”

In addition to scared students and families, school shootings also take a toll on school leaders, who are endlessly preparing for a worst-case scenario and reacting to news of violence in schools elsewhere.

“I am nervous and anxious 175 days a year,” Kunin said. “That’s how many days we have kids in the schools.”

Richard Green, superintendent of Lisbon School Department, agreed.

“Student safety is our top priority. Although I would like to think that we are making every effort to be aware and proactive in dealing with any type of threat, I don’t know if there is a plan or procedure that can eliminate this from happening in any of our schools,” Green said. “Although I love my job, when I see and hear the pain on the faces and in the voices of the people impacted by these types of events, it makes me wonder if this is something that I want to continue to do.”

Editor’s note: This report is a collaborative effort by the Portland Press Herald, Lewiston Sun Journal, Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel. Staff Writers Megan Doyle, Charles Eichacker, Emily Higginbotham and Leslie Dixon contributed.

Noel K. Gallagher can be contacted at 791-6387 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: noelinmaine

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