A sign reminds visitors to stop in the principal's office at Morningside Community School. School officials are reviewing their security policies after Friday's school shooting in Connecticut.
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — School officials presented tightened security protocols and clarified existing safety measures at Morningside Community School on Monday, one of several meetings held at Pittsfield schools in the wake of the Connecticut school shooting that shocked the country last Friday.
"I have never functioned as a leader thinking that this can't happen here," Morningside Principal Joseph Curtis told a crowd of about 50 parents gathered for the informational meeting. "I am always mentally prepared for it to happen, as best as I possibly can."
Curtis said he had worked throughout the weekend on crafting the school's handling of concerns resulting from Friday's tragedy, and had assembled staff for a meeting Monday. Teachers were asked not to initiate conversations in their classrooms about what happened, but they discuss methods for answering pupils' questions, though Curtis said only a few youths brought it up.
Current safety policies at the school were reviewed, including procedures for visitors entering the locked building, the way in which children are admitted and dismissed into the building, and use of walkie-talkie radios for emergencies. Additionally, Curtis said, he himself carries a wireless phone connected to a landline at all times for contacting authorities, and is putting in an order for three more such phones for administrators tomorrow.
"You absolutely do not have the right to walk through this building unannounced, at will," said Curtis, reminding parents that doors are locked at all times, and parents are not allowed to enter without identifying themselves and being accompanied by staff.
The school is required by the city to do a minimum of four safety drills per year, but Curtis said Morningside typically holds them schoolwide every six weeks, and individual quads run additional drills throughout the year.
New policies are also being implemented in the wake of the events in Newtown, Conn., on Friday that killed 26. The gate behind the cafeteria will now be locked, and main doors to the gym off the school's lobby will no longer be opened. Kindergarten and pre-kindergarten classroom doors will now be locked to entry from the outside while classes are in session, and the principal or another administrator will be stationed in the lobby each day beginning at 8:15 as children come in.
In particular, Morningside will be implementing more ways of restricting entry to the building to have all children enter through the main doors, with only two exit options allowed when school gets out.
"Many community members have complained that everyone [currently] comes through the front, and as I've explained in the past, we want everyone to come through the front," said Curtis. "If we had students exiting on the side, exiting on the back, all of those could lead to potential security breaches."
Curtis fielded a variety of questions and comments from parents, most adamantly the desire on the part of some for increased police presence, such as having an officer stationed at schools at the beginning and end of each day.
"We constantly fight to get more officers on the street," said Pittsfield Police Officer Miles J. Barber, who was in attendance. Barber said the reality is that local law enforcement receives and average of 140 calls a day, and makes an average of five arrests per day, often with only six officers out on the street during a given shift.
"The best I can say is we have to do our own policing as well as the parents," said Barber, noting that parents often ignore safety measures.
I've never felt safer in all the schools I've worked at and all the states I've lived in than I did at this school today.
— teacher Gail Norton
"I can tell you that whenever we have called the police for any reason, they have been here within a minute or two," said Curtis.
A perceived need for help from local police was also raised at another such meeting, across town at Egremont Elementary School on Monday.
"I think closing all outside doors and buzzing people in is crucial," Egremont parent Carrie Wright, who attended that meeting, told iBerkshires. "But I was concerned that they are not conducting safety drills with actual police on a regular basis."
The suggestion of arming staff with nonlethal weapons such as pepper spray or tasers was also raised, but met with skepticism, citing the increased risk of an incident from the presence of such items versus the negligible utility they would have against any armed assailant.
"We want to keep this facility as pristine as possible, while insuring as best as possible that we can maintain security," said Curtis. "All of those things can be used in the facility in an inappropriate way.
Curtis was also asked about the policy of locked doors when it came to meetings during and after school. An open meeting complaint was filed recently because the doors at Reid Middle School were locked
during a meeting.
"In almost all cases we have someone manning the door, to let the public in. If for some reason we did not have someone... the door will still be locked," said Principal Curtis. "If anyone wants to file an open meeting law complaint, I'm fine with that, because student safety always comes first."
Many parents expressed gratitude to school administration and staff, and voiced a sense of overall safety at the school.
"I just want to thank you and your staff, because obviously you're on your toes, and you're doing what you can for our kids," said one father. "My daughter feels safe here."
"I've never felt safer in all the schools I've worked at and all the states I've lived in than I did at this school today," said Morningside teacher Gail Norton.
"I had hoped that this meeting would be standing-room only," concluded one mother, "This is an important issue that we need to come together as a community on."