The state of New Hampshire is making school safety and security the beneficiary of a budget surplus, allocating roughly $30 million to school projects.
Projects for the first allocation of just less than $20 million fell under three categories: imminent danger and health risks; security enhancements; and fiber-optic access.
There were few projects in the imminent danger/health risks category. Those were projects that couldn’t wait, such as one where fire retardant that had been used years ago on a building was still present and eating away at the wood. Another was a bat infestation that had to be eradicated. The fiber-optic component matched federal funds to bring fiber on board and there were a handful of those projects.
The majority of the projects fell under security enhancements and included assessments, education and training, cameras, alerting systems, safety locks on doors, shatterproof windows, and other projects that enhanced those. For example, expanding certain buildings was necessary to accommodate the new safety locks.
The thrust of the investments began last year when Gov. Chris Sununu wanted to put money “back into the community” and act on school safety assessments that were done after the Sandy Hook shootings.
“These are one-time funds that will be spent on one-time projects,” Sununu told the New Hampshire Union Leader.
After Sandy Hook, a team was put together to identify gaps in safety and were done on about 75 percent of the 650 schools, according to state Homeland Security Director Perry Plummer.
The assessment was about “identifying gaps and giving the schools a complex report saying these are your gaps this is what you need to do about it,” Plummer said, but there really wasn’t much money to do anything until the 2017 budget surplus.
“Initially, we allocated just under $20 million to the public infrastructure fund to pay for school security and eminent life hazard projects,” Plummer said. Sununu wanted to make sure the money was well spent and not just thrown at the problem, and Plummer said the assessments were the key to sound investments.
“We said, ‘We’re not just throwing money away, we’ve done a complex assessment and we’ve identified gaps in security and we’re putting $20 million toward those gaps.” The governor later allocated $10 million more.
“After [the Parkland shootings] the governor said we still need to do more, so we put together a multidiscipline task force with myself as the chair,” Plummer said. The task force consists of four working groups — school stakeholders, mental health experts, emergency response personnel, and technology and security staff. A report by the task force that includes how to handle school resource officers is due out in a couple of weeks.
Plummer said education and training are a big component of the improvements being undertaken. By state law, schools are required to have emergency operations plans, but some don’t amount to much, he said, and some schools never exercise those plans.
So schools have been provided a template to help develop emergency operations plans and now have access to seminars on how to write their own. They also get incident command training with first responders and training for “warm zone” scenarios, when first responders are asked to go into a live ongoing scenario such as an active shooter.
“One of the focuses has been with warm zone training and we’ve allocated half a million dollars for warm zone EMS equipment and another $300,000 to $400,000 for educational programs for warm zone training, bringing in police, fire and EMS,” Plummer said.
Training has been a big focus, but surveillance has been as well. “We’ve been paying for a lot of cameras,” Plummer added. “We recommend them as a deterrent but also as an early alerting system, so when someone sees someone coming toward the school they know who it is and can take appropriate action.”
He said the key to making the cameras viable options is constant monitoring. He said to get the most value, someone on school grounds needs to be viewing them and first responders should have viewing access as well.
Early notification is another key area and some schools have systems that allow teachers to hit an icon on a computer to send a message to 911 dispatch and state troopers. It opens a two-way chat, so dispatch can talk to whomever sent the message.