CHATHAM –Police Chief Mark Pawlina went before the board of selectmen last Wednesday to stress the need to improve security at local schools by installing bullet-proof doors and locks on classrooms and a full-time school resource officer. Pawlina had no specific spending proposal; indeed, school facilities are under the purview of the Monomoy Regional School Committee, not selectmen, so the board had no authority to change the school department budget.
But the board does control the police department budget, and members unanimously agreed to add $81,000 to fund a full-time school resource officer.
“I only have one word to say: Wow,” he said after the vote. “I wasn't expecting that, but thank you.”
“It's a step we can take right now, immediately,” said Chairman Cory Metters.
The board also unanimously approved sending a letter to the town's representatives on the school committee requesting that they pursue a program to fortify the region's schools with bullet-proof doors and locks, video surveillance systems and other appropriate measures.
The recent school shooting in Florida has brought a greater urgency to school security issues, Pawlina said
“This could happen anywhere, because it is happening everywhere,” he said. Although school officials make an effort to monitor students and keep any eye out for warning signs, there's no way to predict when an incident like the one that occurred at Marjory Stoneham Douglas High School Feb. 14 will happen.
“But there are some immediate, practical solutions we can do, and I think we should do,” Pawlina told the board Feb. 28.
Second count in such situations, and fortifying classroom doors with ballistic-proof doors and locks make it more difficult for a shooter to gain access to students and give them a better chance of survival, he said. “That's the same thing as buying lives. Buying time equals buying lives,” he said.
Because of the expense, it may not be practical to install fortified doors in every classroom. But if every second or third door was bullet-proof, and students knew where these safe zones were located, “you're going to be safe, or at least safer than you would have been otherwise,” he said.
“It's insurance,” he added. “It gives a little peace of mind.” Pawlina has four children, two of whom are in the Monomoy system; one is a special needs student who can't react to an incident the same way other students can. “Whatever protection there is physically around him, that's all he has. All his special needs classmates are in the same boat. There is no run, hide, fight for him.”
He also suggested a live video feed from the schools to the police department as an additional security measure. Both the middle and elementary school have video monitoring systems in place, although they are limited.
Chatham officers are trained and equipped to a level “just short of a SWAT team,” he said, and conduct tactical scenario-based training three times a year. That's necessary because it would take the nearest SWAT team 30 to 45 minutes to respond. “That doesn't work for me,” Pawlina said, “and that's not going to work for our citizens either.” He's spoken with school administrators about his concerns, and while they are “on board,” he also wanted to convey his “sense of urgency” to selectmen.
The department currently has a school liaison officer, Sgt. William Massey, who spends as much time as possible at Monomoy Middle School and Chatham Elementary School, but he also works a regular shift. Harwich has a full-time school resource officer, Pawlina added.
Having a full-time officer, “somebody who's interacting with children” and not just a guard, in the schools will likely help students feel safer, said Selectman Shareen Davis. “Fear is not conducive to learning, and I really feel strongly that a lot of kids are in that situation now,” she said. Establishing the position is “prudent and it's an arguable thing that at this point we can all wrap our heads around,” added Davis.
The $81,000 includes the cost of both salary and benefits.