MANCHESTER — A New Hampshire Union Leader reporter's spot check this week at four Manchester elementary schools showed administrative assistants serving as sentinels, closely watching who is buzzed in and stopping visitors who try to slip inside without checking in at the front office.
At Webster School on the north end of Elm Street, the aide buzzed in an unidentified visitor but the aide quickly notified Principal Christine D. Martin when, viewing a video surveillance screen from her desk, she did not recognize the visitor as a parent.
The reporter, who stopped at the front office and identified herself to the assistant, turned around to see Martin standing in the doorway.
Martin carries a cell phone and walkie-talkie. She and her assistant also carry panic buttons to alert police in the event of an emergency.
She said school staff are trained in an emergency management protocol and that children are trained as well in what to do in an evacuation. The 430 students, from kindergartners to fifth graders, head to a nearby location.
"The children are also trained not to open doors for anyone," Martin said.
The school prepares for various scenarios and will be working on a further emergency evacuation plan.
However, Martin and other educators noted, the Sandy Hook school mass shooting one year ago today made it apparent that anyone is vulnerable no matter the security. "When you have somebody with a high-powered rifle....When bad people have bad intentions, you know bad things happen."
At the other end of Elm Street, exterior doors at Bakersville School were all locked and, like the other schools checked, a visitor had to be buzzed in through a secured front door.
Gerry Beaudry, administrative assistant, stopped a reporter as she passed by the front office without checking in and prevented her from entering the interior of the school. Beaudry, wife of school board member Arthur Beaudry, also stopped a mother from heading to her daughter's classroom to deliver cupcakes. Beaudry said the policy was in place to keep traffic in the hallways to a minimum.
Bakersville Principal Judith Adams was unhappy with the check. She alerted school district administration and then escorted the reporter out, telling her to have a "nice rest of your day."
Weston Vice Principal Richard Chretien, on the other hand, was welcoming after stopping the reporter who, after being buzzed in, passed by the front office.
He said that after Sandy Hook, the Hanover Street school has conducted more evacuation and shelter-in-place drills. Recently, the school's 600 students were evacuated in just two minutes, he said. All the classrooms, he said, have locks on the doors and shades that pull down.
The biggest concern for the school, he said, is accidents because it is located near Interstate 293, two gas stations and a power substation.
Chretien said what people don't remember is that Sandy Hook was a secured school; Adam Lanza still was able to breach that security and kill 20 children and six school staff members in Newtown, Conn. He shot his mother to death before driving to the school and targeting the young children, the staff and then killing himself.
And while security measures were tightened in Manchester, some school officials pointed out schools don't have bulletproof glass.
Nothing, they say, is going to stop a madman determined to get inside.
Alerted to the spot checks, Superintendent Debra Livingston quickly met with principals and then called the newspaper. She asked to meet with the reporter and demanded return of a one-page document outlining the school district's emergency response plan. Livingston said the district had to be careful about sharing any kind of security information.
In her office, Livingston, with Assistant Superintendent Karen Burkush taking notes, said the unannounced visits had caused "disruption throughout the district" with principals having to stop what they were doing and contact the administration which, in turn, had to call its meeting of the principals.
"Our number one priority is the safety of all the children," she said.
Livingston acknowledged being pleased that the spot checks of Bakersville, Gossler Park, Weston and Webster revealed no security breaches. Livingston said she was proud of the protocols that are in place.
"This is how I look at it," she said. "I have 15,000 students, these are my children, our children, and I can be a little bit of a mother bear. At any point of time, this could have escalated into a situation."
She didn't explain what situation might arise but said the checks had "made people very uncomfortable'' and interrupted administrators. She said people were frightened. She would not identify them.
Livingston also would not say what additional security steps the district has taken since the Sandy Hook massacre. Her reasoning is that the district has to be certain the information does not get into the wrong hands.