Rochester to beef up school security

Can you put a price on school safety? In the wake of the December elementary-school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, the answer, clearly, is ‘no.’

On Monday, the Rochester Board of Education unanimously approved an expenditure of up to $179,143 for a video intercom access system and expanded door card reader system at the district’s elementary and middle schools, ACE and RACE buildings. The systems are expected to be installed no later than spring break.

The recommendation came from the district’s Critical Incident Team, which has met several times since immediately after the Connecticut shooting. The team asked that all school doors be locked, said Chairwoman Debbi Hartman.

“Our protocol had been all doors locked except the main entrance,” she said. In the first week after Newtown, PTA volunteers stepped up to monitor entrances. After winter break, temporary help was hired, but Hartman said that approach is “unsustainable.”

The district currently employs security guards at the high schools. Six police liaison officers are shared by all the buildings. Parents have been demanding more.

The new video system will allow an employee in each building’s main office to see, hear and converse with someone seeking to enter. “It’s fairly simple,” said Assistant Superintendent for Business Daniel Romczek. “It has a wide-angle lens, an audio box and a doorbell that would be installed on the exterior of the building. … It’s relatively low-cost and offers a significant sense of security.”

The card-reader system is already in use in the high schools for specified staff, such as coaches, custodians and cooks. The district is considering offering the new card keys to parents who use latchkey programs as well.

Several years ago the district commissioned a study on upgrading security. The resulting recommendation was for a much bigger system, including video cameras, and with a price in the millions. This time, the district budgeted $125,000 for the program, an amount Romczek called arbitrary.

“We really didn’t know how much it was going to cost,” he said. Though the bids came in above that, “We feel very comfortable using other district funds to come up with this,” he said.

Interim Superintendent Tresa Zumsteg said staff, parents, and even law enforcement participated in the Critical Incident Team discussion.

“The nice thing about having this cross-section of people, I think, (is) we really thought through a lot of the what-if’s,” she said. She added that the district might not want to release details about implementation. “This is a televised meeting. There are some things when you are talking security that you don’t want to give every detail.”

Several board members said they would like to see the new systems installed at the high schools as well as the other buildings and mentioned after-school activities, such as sporting events.

“What we did was look at the short term; what could we do quickly and what was affordable,” Zumsteg said. “We know that with sporting events, this is not the system that is going to help with that. … It’s something you want to get your community involved with.”

“We’re not going into this blindly,” said board President Beth Talbert. “There was very much a collective sense that doing nothing was no longer an option, that this would be a good start.”

Michelle Bueltel, a parent on the Critical Incident Team with children in middle school and high school, said the new system is “what a lot of people want” and what “they (the district) have to have for the staff there to do what they have to do.”

“I don’t think there’s anything you can do to keep someone out who is intent on doing harm,” she said. Rather, “How many barriers can we put in place to slow them down.”

As for adding even more security, “It’s the trade-off,” Bueltel said. “What do you give up for that? How many teachers do you have to give up for that?”

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