Windham Southeast Supervisory Superintendant Ron Stahley (Zachary P. Stephens/Reformer file photo)
Windham Southeast Supervisory Superintendant Ron Stahley (Zachary P. Stephens/Reformer file photo)
Tuesday January 29, 2013

BRATTLEBORO -- With many students staying away from Brattleboro Union High School Monday, one parent put it this way: "It's a new ballgame we're playing, and everyone is trying to figure out the rules."

That sentiment is shared by many area school administrators who are trying to ensure student safety while dealing with concerned parents, online rumors and high-profile tragedies like December's shooting in Newtown, Conn.

Officials say it's a difficult balancing act and a work in progress.

"The question of school security has been an ongoing concern for many years -- not just since last month," said Mark Truhan, vice chairman of the Brattleboro Town School District board.

The pros and cons of a public alert system were evident this week as parents in the Windham Southeast Supervisory Union received calls saying "precautionary" security measures would be in place at schools on Monday.

One message said "an individual may have made threatening statements." But police said they have not undertaken an investigation, and it was unclear on Monday when or how a threat was made.

Officials also took pains to say that there had been no specific threat against any school or group of students.

The general lack of detail provoked diverse reactions from parents and other who commented on the Reformer Facebook page.

Some were understanding: "The lack of information is a bit disturbing as parents. But what we all need to realize, the information was given as a precaution. The schools and law-enforcement community are doing all that they can do without jeopardizing any ongoing investigation."

Others were less accommodating: "They wanted to sound like they were on top of things, but with all the vagueness all they did was cause a mass panic. The kids are all scared, and nobody wants to send them to school today."

Ron Stahley, Windham Southeast superintendent, stood behind his decisions.

"That's just part of the job," Stahley said of the criticism.

Other school administrators said emotions go hand-in-hand with the school-security question.

"When you inform people of precautions, then they have a heightened anxiety," said Steven John, Windham Central Supervisory Union superintendent.

Sometimes, John said, "I don't have an adequate answer."

A concerned parent may want information that is not available or cannot be made public, officials said. Christopher Kibbe, Windham Northeast Supervisory Union superintendent, said administrators "try to give out as much information as we can."

"The line you have to be careful about is, what isn't public information, and what are our emergency procedures?" Kibbe said. "In the wrong hands, these could be used in really unpleasant and dangerous ways."

There's no secret, though, that the trend is toward more locked doors and less public access during the school day.

"The unfortunate thing is, this is all in direct contrast with our desire to be open and welcoming to the community," Kibbe said.

Truhan has heard from parents who want a locked-tight school and those who argue against it.

"That (debate) will probably be going on for a long time," he said.

So officials across the region are taking a close look at their security procedures, especially in the wake of the Newtown incident. For example, police in Keene, N.H., reportedly have announced that they will make daily visits to city schools.

In December, Vernon police said they expected to regularly be on hand when students arrive at and are dismissed from the town's elementary school.

And last week, the Brattleboro town school board met with local emergency officials and school staff to discuss safety.

"It was essentially a question-and-answer session: This is what we've got, this is what we're doing," Truhan said.

The verdict, at least for now, is that nothing significant is changing.

"We left it as, what is in place is what's going to stay in place until we have further discussions," Truhan said.

School leaders know that, in some ways, they are pursuing an unreachable goal -- absolute security inside a public educational institution.

"The best advice is to plan and to practice the drills," John said. "But don't think you can provide 100 percent security to anyone."

So, on days like Monday in Brattleboro, school administrators may be tasked with conflicting roles: They are protectors in a high-stakes security situation and educators who are answerable to the public.

It's a position familiar to police. On Monday, Brattleboro police Chief Gene Wrinn urged residents to be "hyper-vigilant" while also hoping that his officers were seen as signs that the matter was under control.

"We're doing what we can to be the face of calm and reassurance," Wrinn said.

Mike Faher can be reached at mfaher@reformer.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 275.