Newtown tragedy keeps MHS focused on security

Newtown tragedy keeps MHS focused on security

By Samantha Carter, Round Table online editor-in-chief

Hundreds of students walk the halls of Middletown High School, identified only by agendas. Teachers wear official badges. Visitors display yellow passes.

Students don’t second guess familiar faces of visitors in the school. Every so often, however, an unknown face without identification appears in a hall or classroom.

When visitor protocol is not followed, it creates an apprehensive environment. Especially in the wake of recent incidents of violence in schools.

The two deadliest mass shootings in United States history targeted schools, the most recent being the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., on Dec. 13, 2012, which left 20 elementary school-aged children and six adults dead.  The other occurred at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg, Va., on April 16, 2007, and left 32 people dead.

The massacre in Newtown has made safety in local schools a priority.

MHS administrators have noted, however, the importance of distinguishing between a real threat and those fueled by gossip and rumors.

In the days following the Newtown shootings, students at schools throughout Frederick County, including MHS, were frightened by postings on social media that included rumors of violence to come.

Although a student at MHS was removed for a period of time, it was determined by administrators and the Frederick County Sheriff’s Department that no real threat ever existed and the student was allowed to return to school.

MHS Principal Denise Fargo-Devine tried to relieve concerned students who heard rumors circulating about possible security threats at MHS.

She made an announcement on Dec. 21, 2012, emphasizing the importance of “stopping the gossip” and avoiding the phrase “I heard.”

Nonetheless, Fargo-Devine said, the school, as it always has, plans to “chase every rumor” of possible attacks.

In the case of a legitimate threat, there are multiple procedures in place at MHS to prevent a situation from actually happening.

In order to enter the building, visitors must buzz into the building at the front doors. Vicki Grossnickle, MHS secretary, monitors a screen mounted above her desk that shows who is trying to enter.

“When it is someone I recognize, like a parent who volunteers here, I ring them in; if I don’t recognize them, I ask how I can help them,” she said.

“The current (buzzer) system makes it more difficult to get inside. There are cameras ouside the front door and in the lobby,” MHS Assistant Principal Michael Watson said.

Visitors then proceed to the office where they “sign into a book and computer which prints them a pass.”  The visitors must then stick the pass to the outside of their clothing and keep it visible while in the school.

“Some schools in Frederick County didn’t have the buzzer system (before the shooting); all schools now have buzzers,” Watson said.

Current policies disallow strangers into the building, but there are flaws to every system. If normally secure doors are left open by sports teams, students, or teachers, this system of keeping MHS secure is faulty.

“I was walking around after tennis and saw two doors propped open,” said MHS junior Michelle Shedd. This has become a growing concern for both students and faculty.

Fargo-Devine said “if kids and staff would not take convenience of the security system we have here and prop doors open, it would be better.”

Alex Menke, MHS sophomore, said the current system could prevent intruders by using “swipe cards to get into locked doors.”

In addition, there are cameras mounted at a variety of locations outside MHS and in the hallways.  Deputy Sheriff Anthony Smothers, resource officer at MHS, monitors the cameras from his office and makes regular rounds throughout the building to ensure safety.

“I look for everything. I make sure doors are secure, cameras are working and students’ and administration’s vehicles are tagged properly. If not, then the vehicle does not belong,” Smothers said.

He also notices “students out of class” and asks them where they are going and why. “If they don’t have a pass, I ask them to return to class and get one from their teacher,” he said.

All of the administrators are also skilled in recognizing threats to security.

“I am trained to observe things happening,” said Watson, adding that he would notice if something does not seem right.

As for increasing security, nothing new is planned at MHS.

Fire, lock-down and tornado drills are some measures already in place to ensure student safety. Some people argue there should be ‘crisis’ drills; others believe survival instincts would kick in during those situations.

“We have drills; even if nobody takes them seriously, we still know what to do,” MHS junior Owen Moreland said.

Freshman Anna Russell said, “We practiced a lot of fire drills, but we should do more lock-down drills to be prepared.”

Safety drills are not always on the minds of students or teachers. “We talk about it on the first day (of school) but then don’t care,” said Shedd.

Watson disagrees that students and faculty don’t take the drills seriously enough but said improvement is always welcome.

“Staff and students listen and follow directions during drills. We feel we do enough (to prepare for emergency situations), but there is always room for more,” Watson said.

Despite the current security procedures, training of administrators and faculty, and presence of a sheriff’s deputy in the school, some students feel that there will always be a potential for incidents.

The protection provided at MHS makes it less likely for an emergency situation to occur, “but if someone wanted to get in, then they easily could,” said MHS senior Victoria Ward.

MHS math teacher Sharon Szpara’s classroom is unusual in that it is a portable. Security is “harder in a portable,” she said. However, there are no “different security measures” regarding portables.

With bathroom breaks and passes being delivered from the front office, it is difficult to keep the portable doors locked because of the potential for disruption. In addition, during class changes, students must go outside between the portables and the main building, but there is no increased security at that time.

Watson said the current system takes the necessary measures.

Portable doors should be “locked and teachers should be (outside) during class changes,” Watson said.

Still, Szpara said, classes have been able to continue with minimal anxiety. “Initially (the shooting) scared everyone, but we try not to live in fear of that each day,” she said.

Despite the Newtown shootings, people tend to feel safe in their hometowns, and Middletown is no different; a sense of sanctuary leads them to believe attacks are not possible in their communities.

 “That sort of thing wouldn’t happen at MHS,” said Samantha Ramsey, MHS sophomore.