Police say Souhegan High School needs improved security

AMHERST – The town’s two school resource officers told the Souhegan School Board it should upgrade the high school’s security by closing the campus and installing many more cameras.

Officers Michael Knox and John Smith gave school officials a PowerPoint presentation recently and said emphatically that the school isn’t safe.

“Internal cameras have to be installed,” Knox said. “This is a tremendous life-safety issue.”

All of the latest research from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and other safety agencies points to the need to eliminate the open campus and improve surveillance, the officers said.

Workplace violence is no longer an exception, and the Department of Labor “has deemed this facility an unsafe working environment for the staff as a result of the open campus,” Knox said. He said experts who have looked at Souhegan say the campus isn’t secure because of the lack of internal cameras, insufficient exterior cameras and the open campus.

Twice since 2004, Homeland Security deemed the building noncompliant.

“We have consulted every expert that exists,” Knox said. “This is research-based, not opinion-based.”

“All schools should control who goes in and out,” said Smith, who said students from neighboring schools shouldn’t be visiting at lunchtime.

Not long ago, he said, a nonstudent entered the school with a parent, and as a result, one of the Souhegan students was assaulted.

Smith and Knox are trained in a program called Advanced Law Enforcement Rapid Response, and they give programs in dealing with workplace violence.

Board member David Chen interrupted the presentation to tell the officers the high school is more than a school, it is a community building, with plays, voting and other kinds of activities going on.

But Knox said changes in a school’s atmosphere tend to be positive after security is tightened.

“Kids you have in this building went through schools with cameras and locked doors,” he said, referring to Amherst’s elementary and middle schools.

The officers said safety comes first, and recommended a camera system that would cost about $108,000.

Central to school safety are surveillance, access control and emergency alerting system, the officers said. All five of the district’s schools have blue pull stations that create an emergency tone for a lockdown, they said, but that means Souhegan only has one-third of the security measures it needs.

All schools should control who goes in and out, Smith said, and the open campus “is creating a greater risk.”

“We are not creating a prison,” he said, “but a place where they can concentrate on physics and not worry about the person outside who is upset over what they posted on Snapchat last night.”

Security cameras have been a hot-button issue at Souhegan over the years. In 2010, in the wake of the deadly Mont Vernon home invasion, the student-led Community Council came out against cameras in the school, saying they would be counter to its spirit. The council did recommend cameras in the parking lot, which were installed.

The council is an advisory group of 47 members, including 10 students, with the rest faculty and community members from Amherst and Mont Vernon.

From the audience, Lynn Briggs, one of three Amherst EMTs who were attacked by a combative patient on Memorial Day 2010, told the board not to be “petty and cheap.”

Elizabeth Purvis, a member of the Community Council who graduated this month, urged the board to improve the school’s security. She said there will be some pushback from the council, and said she was disheartened by how contentious the issue is within it.

Just because it hasn’t happened here doesn’t mean it can’t happen here,” she said.

But Jeanne Ludt, a 15-year community representative on the council, urged the board to “respect precedent.”

The council looked at school security three times since 2006, she said, and, “You respected their recommendations.”

Board members agreed to form a committee chaired by Principal Rob Scully that will meet over the summer to put together a security plan for the school. They also agreed on a “drop-dead” deadline of Monday, Oct. 16, for a Community Council decision.

Melody Chen, a student member of the Community Council, told the board that the council will form a security committee that will look at past reports, survey the school population and look at other schools’ security measures.

“We want to understand the problem we’re trying to solve,” she said.

Board Chairman Howard Brown said later in an email to The Cabinet that the ultimate decisions on all safety and security matters rest with the school board.

Kathy Cleveland can be reached at 673-3100 or kcleveland@cabinet.com.