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Published: November 07, 2008 03:59 am ShareThisPrintThis
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Lockdown exposed problems Superintendent: Response was excellent, but more can be done
By Lynne Hendricks
correspondent

NEWBURYPORT - School leaders are addressing a number of problems that arose last month during the districtwide lockdown of schools in an effort to strengthen preparedness in the event of a school or city emergency.
In reviewing Newburyport schools' Secure in Place procedure called by police Oct. 22, Superintendent Kevin Lyons said a number of things did not go according to plan.
Lyons told the School Committee this week that now is the time to address the problems while memories of the harrowing day's events are still fresh in everyone's minds.
"Right now, people are very aware that these things can be very real, and we have a window of opportunity," Lyons said.
The Secure in Place, or lockdown, was put into action by Marshal Thomas Howard after an armed man was reported wandering around the Crow Lane landfill, not far from Nock Middle School. Police from surrounding towns converged on the city; helicopters searched from above; and schools, which were at dismissal time, were told to keep kids inside and conform to a well-drilled procedure in place for emergencies.
An armed man was never found, and the case is still under investigation, according to police.
While city and school leaders praised the response, in reviewing what transpired, Lyons identified a number of issues with communication and building security.
The disbursement of accurate information throughout the lockdown was a prominent issue that resulted in phone lines being tied up and rumors being passed around in place of real information. He cited one miscommunication as having unnecessarily created confusion and fear in the hearts of district officials and staff.
A phone call between two parents "not in the school building" at the time, resulted in a 911 call to police that claimed the gunman police had been searching for had just entered Bresnahan Elementary School, Lyons said.
That unfortunate miscommunication resulted in police entering the building with guns drawn, as is protocol for a report of such serious nature.
"It really didn't need to have happened," Lyons said. "If you were anywhere near the schools, you saw how any word just takes off. It's an explosive situation."
In the future, to communicate with the public, Lyons said schools will utilize the district Web site to offer frequent updates for parents and the community, since office staff have to be utilized for other purposes besides answering phones during an emergency situation.
"We hope to have a much better focus on our Web page as opposed to telephone or rumor," Lyons said. "It will be more up to date than anyone could possibly get."
Another communications problem stemmed from the use of Nextel Direct Connect service during the lockdown, which proved to be inadequate and caused problems with the "real time" relay of information. Although it performed well enough when used to communicate office to office, numerous dead spots were discovered when staff took to the halls.
"When you don't have that, it's really problematic," Lyons said. "(Staff) was out managing the emergency, and when 'mobile' within the building, the Nextel system does not work well. We are looking for solutions to that problem."
Additionally, Lyons said a number of classroom phones weren't working, and the Nock Middle School PA system was ineffective in certain remote areas of the building, resulting in some not being kept abreast of the situation.
Weaknesses were discovered in communicating with after-school athletic groups practicing out at Fuller Field and around the city. Having no window shades or door locks in classrooms at the Bresnahan was also noted as a vulnerability.
"In the Secure in Place, 90 percent is accounting for kids," Lyons said. "That last 10 percent is to be able to lock the door and pull down shades."
Lyons said remaining perimeter issues will also need to be addressed in the near term to adequately keep out unwanted visitors. A recently installed steel door with key pad entry at the Nock School loading dock brought much comfort to parents and staff on the day of the lockdown, since that was widely viewed as the most vulnerable access point, but Lyons noted a modest investment in some video cameras might additionally be explored.
"We still have perimeter issues," he said. "The perimeter is very important. We also should be looking at, at least limited video capability, with perhaps the option of a buzz-in system."
He also stressed that while Bresnahan out of necessity softened its Secure in Place procedures after imminent threat had been ruled out, Molin Upper Elementary stayed largely true to the strict lockdown protocol. Due to the difficulty kids had with being locked down for a long period of time, the district will make room in the future for a softening of procedure once threat has been ruled out. There will be a "soft Secure in Place" and a "Secure in Place," Lyons said.
During Secure in Place procedures, students "hunker down" and cease all classroom activities, Lyons said.
"We'd never done a Secure in Place for such a long time," Lyons said. "Not having had the practice, we believe we could have softened that Secure in Place."
The added step will allow students to go back to their seats after getting the all clear from the Police Department, and plans will be made to provide students and staff with fluids and snacks.
"Students and teachers don't leave the room, but you can return to your seats and start your math or reading," Lyons said. "Moving to that at the appropriate time is the critical piece, but understanding that's a normal progression. You could still go back to that initial Secure in Place if you had to."
Lyons reiterated to the School Committee the overwhelming response from the community, who approved of the district's handling of the presumed threat, and noted the strong relationship between the schools and the Police Department - earned over the course of many safety drills over the past year - was very helpful.
"This was a bona fide serious emergency that was prolonged, and it happened at the worst time of day," Lyons said. "I can't say enough how well people performed
 
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