ELLSWORTH — The last weeks of August are often a scramble to squeeze in one last beach day between gathering clothes and supplies.
But for many, the excitement that accompanies the back-to-school shuffle has in recent years been tinged with anxiety for parents who can’t help but wonder: how safe are my kids at school?
This year, Ellsworth schoolchildren can expect to see new security measures. Exterior doors will be locked after 3 p.m. The department has added staff to check in visitors during after-school hours. Additional door locks have been added, as well as more cameras and card-entry doors.
There will be no policy changes this year, said Ellsworth School Department Superintendent Dan Higgins, but he added that the department reviews its emergency preparedness plans each year and meets regularly with law enforcement and other agencies to discuss emergency preparedness.
Higgins declined to go into detail on plans, aspects of which must be kept confidential for safety reasons.
“It can’t be public knowledge,” he said.
Law enforcement presence was heightened at schools this spring after an incident in early February in which a student made a threat in an online gaming forum.
That heightened presence will continue, said Police Chief Glenn Moshier. But he described the involvement of police officers as “more of a social visit.”
“It could be as simple as eating lunch with the students,” Moshier told an audience of parents and staff at a March forum on school safety. “There’s no directive as to what the officers are supposed to be doing, and the anticipation is that they’ll just come in and they’ll just become part of the fabric of the school.”
Moshier said he hopes to one day have a dedicated school resource officer on each campus in Ellsworth.
The school resource officer program began in 2017 when the city was awarded a COPS (Community Oriented Policing Services) grant, which provided just over half ($125,000) of the total $233,306 to fund the program for three years.
As part of the grant, the city is required to chip in $108,306. Moshier estimated the cost of having an officer in the school at around $80,000 per year, including salary and benefits.
Both Moshier and Higgins stressed that involvement of the entire school community is one of the best ways to protect students.
“The best thing we can do to protect our schools is not give our teachers guns but give them tools,” Moshier said. “The most important piece is a proactive approach to it.”
A 2014 report commissioned by the Maine Department of Education (DOE) and conducted by Safe Havens International notes that upgrades to facilities are “rendered nearly useless when school staff do not support them with appropriate practices.
“Just as the security of an entire school can be compromised by a single school employee propping a door open with a rock, the failure to support security technologies with solid people practices is a very pervasive problem.”
Moshier said the same.
“We have to work hard at it,” he said. “It only takes one person to slip through the cracks.”
At the spring forum, Higgins asked students, staff and parents to report any concerns to administrators. The administration monitors social media accounts of children who may be at risk.
This year, Ellsworth Elementary-Middle School will also have a full-time licensed clinical social worker on staff to help students who may be struggling (there has been one at the high school level for years).
Moshier said he planned to attend a Building Committee meeting for the proposed Sumner Memorial High School on Aug. 21 to offer his advice as a law enforcement official and parent.
For new buildings, said Moshier, there are many design features that can enhance security, such as constructing parking lots in visible locations, keeping foliage around buildings to a minimum, reinforcing walls, windows and doors and minimizing the number of entrances and exits.
In rural towns, said Moshier, it is particularly important that school officials have an idea of how long it will take law enforcement to arrive on scene, who would arrive and who would take charge in the event of a crisis.
Training and equipment also vary widely among departments, Moshier said. The state does not require scenario-based, active shooter training, Moshier said, and such training is often not included in small town budgets.
“With these smaller agencies it’s difficult to have consistency,” Moshier said. “It’s going to be chaotic at best.”
Despite heightened anxiety over school shootings in recent years, data suggest that students are actually safer in school than almost anywhere else.
Everytown for Gun Safety, a nonprofit that tracks shootings on school grounds, lists two cases of gun violence in Maine since 2014, both of which were suicides.
The leading cause of death for school-age children is unintentional injury, often from poisoning, traffic accidents and drowning, according to federal statistics.
Between 1992 and 2015, less than 3 percent of youth homicides occurred on school grounds, and students were roughly as likely to be killed at school in a transportation accident as in any kind of homicide.