State's school safety review shows holes

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MONTPELIER — Many Vermont schools are in need of safety and emergency response upgrades, according to a survey carried out by Gov. Phil Scott's administration in preparation for a new grant program that will make $5 million available for needed improvements.

"Overall the results show we are doing a lot of things very well in Vermont schools," Public Safety Commissioner Tom Anderson said. "The results also show there are some areas we can do better."

About half of schools don't have the public address systems to make announcements to people outside the building, 70 percent don't have internal locks on doors to all rooms in the building, and 44 percent of schools have not communicated with parents and guardians about what to in case of an emergency.

About half of schools don't have internal security cameras, about a third don't have reliable cell phone coverage on school grounds, and a quarter don't have radios for staff to use.

On a number of safety related issues, almost all schools are in compliance. About 92 percent of schools educate staff and students on emergency response protocols at the start of the year, 96 percent comply with the state's school emergency drill schedule, and 83 percent lock exterior doors during business hours.

Rob Evans, the state's school safety liaison, said a committee given the task of improving preparedness and emergency response capabilities would focus on locking mechanisms, outdoor PA systems and better training protocols.

"We want to make sure we are spending money not only on response but on prevention," he said during a press conference Thursday announcing the findings.

Anderson said schools would be able to begin applying for the grants by June 1 at the latest. He said the administration was hoping that the final budget bill would eliminate a requirement for communities to match state funding for the upgrades.

He said schools would receive an updated list of best practices on access control, visitor management, exterior door labelling, interior door locking, public address systems, internal communication systems, mass notification systems and parent/guardian communication.

Schools are not required to do anything, but the hope is that they will use the survey results and updated best practices to identify the holes in their own systems and procedures and submit a funding request to make improvements and invest in new infrastructure.

The capital budget bill that contains $4 million of the school safety funding is currently in the Senate. Another $1 million will come from federal Homeland Security grants.

Scott also signed an executive order during the press conference establishing the Governor's Community Violence Prevention Task Force, which will be composed of 14 members from the administration and the public who will report back on how to address the "root causes" of the risk of violence.

That group will review existing research and current gaps in Vermont communities to make recommendations by Dec. 1 on how the state can start tackling issues including behavior, mental health, firearm safety and the breakdown of civil discourse.

"The unfortunate bottom line is this world is ever changing, and we need to do whatever we can to keep Vermonters safe," Scott said upon signing the order.

This was also the theme of Scott's speech before signing three new pieces of gun legislation in a public ceremony on the Statehouse steps last week.

The new gun restrictions — including background checks on private gun sales, a ban on high-capacity magazines and an increase in the minimum age for gun purchases — became a priority for Scott and legislators after a mass school shooting in Parkland, Florida, and the arrest of a teenager from Poultney, Vermont.

Scott also laid out a broader action plan for how to deal with the issue in the days after that arrest, including the school safety review, a public service campaign encouraging people to report suspicious behavior and increased funding for the state's mental health system.

Jack Sawyer, the 18-year-old who is accused of plotting an attack on Fair Haven Union High School, was still jailed in Rutland county as of Friday, but could be released if his father posts $100,000 bail.

That is because the Supreme Court decided that the charges against him, which included attempted aggravated murder, were not supported by his actions, which fell short of an "attempt" under Vermont case law.

That decision prompted Scott to call for a revision of the state's so-called attempt law and the passage of a new domestic terrorism law to plug what he called legal loopholes. Lawmakers are currently working on those changes and say they could be passed and sent to Scott next week.

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