Norwich changes with the Age of Terror
You can't just walk into the Marion Cross School any more. Thanks to a grant from the state of Vermont, MCS has installed a security system at its inside front doors, which are now locked. Just ring the bell and someone in the office will press a button to unlatch the door and let you in.
It's a small -- but when you get down to it, significant -- concession to one of the grim lessons of the past few years: No place in America can consider itself untouchable by terror. Which is a challenge for a place like MCS, whose welcoming approach to parents and visitors has been a key part of its culture for generations of schoolkids. "Honestly," says MCS Principal Bill Hammond, "the people who come here are the people we want here."
The Norwich Police Department is getting ready, too. A $4,000 federal grant will send two officers to New Mexico in January for training in how to respond to terrorist incidents. "It’s a pretty neat training," says Sgt. Jennifer Frank of the Norwich PD. "It's about how do you evaluate how serious a threat is -- a shooting, a bomb threat, a backpack left on school grounds, a suspicious-looking letter, a phone call... How do you respond?"
The training will also include how best to structure a response when multiple agencies are involved. And, says Frank, "It's not just training for you. You’re taught in a way that you can take that back to others in your agency and other agencies." The federal grant covers the full cost, including travel, meals, and the Norwich officers' time.
The changes to MCS came about after a state safety check recommended a series of new measures, including restricting access through the front doors -- other entrances had already been secured. There have been other, smaller changes as well, which Hammond prefers not to talk about. "The only real change was the front door," he says. Most of the costs were paid for by the $24,873.75 grant.
The challenge, Hammond says, is that "we need to do these safety things so they don't interfere with the day-to-day comfort and running of the school." For one thing, research in highly secured schools suggests there's a psychic cost to school-children. "They're finding that kids have a lot more difficulty with anxiety and fear because they think, 'If things are shuttered and there are cameras, is there something I should be afraid of?' And so they become afraid."
But he also believes that sustaining MCS's feeling of openness and welcome is crucial to the school's mission, as well as to its security. "It’s important for the safety of a school system to have many adults involved," he says. "So we’re trying to implement all this so it’s as innocuous as possible. And welcome to school! We want you here! We want you to come in and read to our kids!"