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Sounding the Alarm: Leominster Eyes Improved Safety in Classrooms with Recent Changes

December 23, 2018
Leominster's CTEi now features blue lights like the one shown above in all of the shops with loud machinery due to safety concerns. SENTINEL & ENTERPRISE/JOHN LOVE Sentinel and Enterprise staff photos can be ordered by visiting our SmugMug site.

LEOMINSTER -- Of all the recent changes implemented in the city’s schools, perhaps the most jarring for faculty and staff came last year.

“It was the first elementary-level drill we did last year at Northwest (Elementary). We went through it with the police and all of us stood outside and the tears welled up to see little kids doing this,” said School Superintendent Paula Deacon. “They were fine, but it was the adults having the reaction. It was us realizing, ‘This is where we’re at.’”

Deacon’s recollection is that of an active-shooter training drill that was carried out last year and has since become a standard practice throughout the district. Like the traditional fire drills and the “duck and cover” drills of the Cold War era, it’s now become routine to prepare for the possibility of a gunman to walk into a school.

ALICE Training -- a school shooting training exercise that stands for Alert, Lock down, Inform, Counter, and Evacuate -- is now being carried out at every Leominster school twice a year.

According to Deacon, it’s become a lot more normalized since those early exercises one year ago.

“Now we talk about this kind of thing and a year later I think we’re in such a different place,” she said. “It’s one of our new routines.”

But Leominster’s preparation goes beyond biannual rehearsals. The district has also significantly invested in physical changes to school buildings in the last year to make them more secure and add new features specific to active shooter scenarios.

For the purpose of keeping many of these safety upgrades as effective as possible, district officials declined to list all of the changes, however the amount of money spent for school safety improvements in the last year range between $280,000 and $290,000.

A new radio system that allows schools to better communicate with each other and with the city’s police and fire departments was installed last year. Buildings have also installed new locks, new security cameras, and warning lights.

Some changes have been implemented across the district. Others, as Digital Learning Director Steven Mammone explained, are specific to buildings based on their size, occupancy, and activities taking place there.

“We’ve given the buildings the flexibility to look into things that a particular school might need, but then as a district we look at those things to see which ones can grow,” he said. “It’s not all universal from day one, but the good things happening are the ones we try to build upon.”

One example are the new warning lights recently placed at the Center for Technical Education Innovation. Because many of the students work in trade shops with loud machinery, they may be unable to hear an alarm or the sound of gunshots. If a shooter does walk into the building, these new bright lights would start flashing to notify students.

The district is now considering putting similar lights in school cafeterias due to the high levels of noise during lunch periods.

Both CTEi and Frances Drake Elementary are also piloting a new mirrored film layer on all exterior doors and windows that make it harder to see inside.

Each school is being given a new line item in their annual budget specifically for building safety.

“That money will be allocated in each building according to the administration of that building,” said Deacon. “I will not move that money into any other line. It is designated for safety.”

Much of this new approach to building security has taken place in the wake of the mass shooting that took place at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida earlier this year. That tragedy directly effected the city’s ongoing efforts to create a “fast reaction team” for the Leominster Police Department, which would be specifically tasked with responding to school shootings. The initiative had been in development for several years before city officials announced that it was being “fast-tracked” to being operational several weeks after the Parkland shooting.

“I don’t think this is a Leominster thing. It’s a national movement with the incidents that have been happening and the outcry to make sure people are safe,” said Deacon. “If you’re not safe in an environment, learning is not going to happen.”

While the district’s approach to building safety has intensified in the last year, there is no planned final stage to the installation of additional security improvements.

“Just the cameras alone are something we could update all of the time. The digital cameras that come out today are getting better every six months,” said Deacon. “I don’t think we’ll ever be done.”

Follow Peter Jasinski on Twitter @PeterJasinski53

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