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Task Force Tackles N.H. School Safety, Avoids Discussing Guns

N.H. State House
Allegra Boverman for NHPR

Administrators and state officials are again discussing safety in the classroom after another school shooting took place earlier this month. This time in Santa Fe, Texas.

Last week on Morning Edition, Rick Ganley spoke with incoming Somersworth High School Principal John Shea about his thoughts on how the state and Gov. Chris Sununu is responding to school safety issues.

Now  Rick speaks with Perry Plummer, the Director of the state’s Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, to continue that conversation.

 (Editor's note: this trascript has been edited lightly for clarity.)

You're the chairman of a task force that was established by the governor earlier this year to discuss improvements to school safety here in New Hampshire would have those discussions sounded like so far?

They've been fantastic. We have about 150 people working on school safety. Under that task force we have working groups, which is a school stakeholder working group where teachers, and principals and students can get together and share their thoughts. We have a mental health working group so we can look at the complexity with mental health professionals. We have a technology and innovative solutions group that's been meeting with vendors and talking about innovative solutions and then an emergency response working group that talks about the response itself. So our goal is to give the governor a report, as he requested, with action items. What can we do tomorrow to make our schools safer?

When will this report go to the governor and when would we start seeing some things being implemented?

So the report is due to the governor in mid-June. And we're really finalizing our task force meetings right now and coming up with those final recommendations. So it's really not fair for me to talk about them, specifically because they have to be vetted out by the task force. With that being said, the truth is there's no one thing that's going to totally secure our schools. So we're looking at everything that we can possibly do. What he told me is I want things that we can do in our schools right away to make our schools safer. But his approach to school safety didn't just start with this task force and after that shooting. When he came into office, I briefed him and we had been doing a lot of things in school safety since Sandy Hook. And you know we're doing complex school security assessments. We've done 90 percent of our schools we've had complex school security assessments on. Because quite frankly, superintendents and principals were being asked: are our schools safe? And they'd say, well we think they are. So they asked us to come in and do these complex school assessments. Then we looked at emergency operations planning. Do they have a plan? Are they trained to their plan? Do they know how to act in a crisis? So we've been doing that. But the governor said look we're not doing enough. We need to do more. So we put more resources, and training and exercises in these plans to make sure teachers, students, administrators, public safety officials know how to react and can respond effectively.

As I mentioned before, last week we had incoming high school Principal John Shea here on the program to talk about school safety. And he says that he feels it's really necessary to talk about the role that guns play in keeping children safe in schools. And I want to know if that's something the task force has discussed. I know the governor here on our air has said before he doesn't think talking about banning certain guns is going to have any effect. It seems to say that guns aren't really part of this discussion. Do you feel that they are? Has the task force brought that up?

Well certainly guns have been talked about forever in this country and this state. Our mission for the task force was to find actionable things. Don't let what we can't do stop us from what we can do. So certainly anything that was going to take years of debate, we're not addressing. So with that being said, we want to recognize the warning signs of someone in crisis, whether they have access to guns or not. We want to make sure that they have access to the help that they need, because that's really the biggest success to have an educational system where people are disenfranchised. But if they do become disenfranchised, they are exhibiting warning signs or they're in crisis, we get them the help that they need. And that's a system that supports that. It's training of all staff from the lunch server, to the hockey coach, to the principal, to parents. With that being said, there's always going to be someone that falls through the cracks and they're going to have opportunity to be violent. And if that's the case, we only want the people that should be in our schools in our schools. So hardening schools to delay a perpetrator long enough for law enforcement to come is a strategy that has shown dividends throughout this country.

But back to my original question though, guns themselves are not necessarily on the table here? You're talking about other things that can be done in lieu of legislation that can be done immediately to to to secure a school building?

Again, we don't want to get bogged down with that debate when there are things that we can do.

But in knowing the governor the way you do, do you feel that the governor would be open to anything down the line to discuss guns? John Shea was saying the more guns you have around on a school campus, the more chances you have for a shooting.

I sat through a hearing at the state house I get to sit in the back of the room when they had the debate about gun free zones and those types of things. And it's a very complex issue, and I'm sure that the government does not weigh both sides of that debate lightly. I mean he has to weigh in, and look at that and decide on his own what's the right thing to do for New Hampshire. I mean we have constitutional rights. We have obviously students that feel concern at their schools. The bottom line is it's not an easy answer. And certainly that can be looked at by people other than the task force.

Gov. Sununu has established a fund of over $20 million for school infrastructure and security upgrades, as you alluded to that this is ongoing. The same principle we talked with, John Shea, says although school officials certainly appreciate that and that's a great start, it's really not that much when you split it between all the schools throughout the state. Are there plans to increase that? Do you feel that that's enough going forward?

I'm not sure that Mr. Shea has all the information of all the stuff that we're doing behind the scenes, and partly that's on us for not getting that out there. But $20 million was put towards another 10 that was just allocated -- so $30 million. So what's that mean? So I know there's a lot of people say so you throw 30 million dollars at a problem. Is it going to fix the problem? But the way that our system was set up prior to the shootings, prior to a lot of other states jumping on top of this, was those complex assessments. To be eligible for those dollars, you had to have an assessment. You had to have gaps identified in an assessment. So rather than throwing $30 million at a problem, what we're saying is we're putting $30 million to known gaps that have been identified. So it's really, really money well spent. We think that over 90 percent of the schools in this state K-12, non-boarding schools will receive some type of security upgrade with this money.

Do you think that upgrade is going to happen by fall? Or when would these upgrades take place?

Some have already happened. We have been working to get money out to the people who have already completed some of their projects. So a lot of them will be done over the summer. But certainly it will be over the next year. Some are large like vestibules, and some are cameras, some are communications systems, those things. But when you take $30 million, and you can affect 90 percent of our school in the state, I don't know any other state that's going to have security upgrades in 90 percent of their schools this year.

For many radio listeners throughout New Hampshire, Rick Ganley is the first voice they hear each weekday morning, bringing them up to speed on news developments overnight and starting their day off with the latest information.
Mary McIntyre is a senior producer at NHPR.

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