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In Parkland's Wake, State Funds Help N.H. Schools Beef Up Security - But Not Mental Health Services

Sarah Gibson for NHPR
A sign outside John Stark Regional High School lets visitors know they're being monitored

At the entrance to John Stark Regional High School in Weare, there’s a big sign that reads: “Premises under video surveillance.”

Principal Christopher Corkery is showing me into the school lobby. On the ceiling are black half-domes with cameras inside.

“If you look right here, there’s a camera that’s looking down, but it’s more angled toward the door.”

All these cameras feed into a monitor in the main office. They show who’s entering the building and what’s happening in the hallways. John Stark plans to install dozens more cameras this fall, thanks to money from New Hampshire’s public school infrastructure fund.

This fund is a first for the state: $30 million aimed at schools in need of safety upgrades.

Corkery says when thinking about upgrades, the school tries to strike a balance.

“You think about it; we’re somewhere between a public park and a public prison," he says. "We don’t want to be anywhere near a prison, because that wouldn’t foster education. We don’t want to be in the public park area because we have to be responsible for the safety of everyone’s children.”

With a rash of high-profile shootings, schools across the country are wrestling with this balance. Schools in New Hampshire are installing everything from bulletproof windows to better locks to new intercoms. Perry Plummer directs the Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management. He says about 80 percent of schools are getting money for upgrades. And a lot of them are buying cameras.

Chart: Schools across New Hampshire are upgrading security this year, paid for in large part by a new state grant fund. Among the costliest projects are the following:

"The surveillance systems which include cameras are extremely important," Plummer says. "For the exterior cameras, they do show who’s approaching the school, what they’re carrying, and they’re being viewed by school personnel, sometimes real-time by law enforcement."

Not all schools are sharing the live feed with law enforcement. Keene High School, for instance, just installed over 100 cameras, which can send a live feed to police. John Stark decided against this - instead, it will get a panic button to alert police of a shooter, and will share archival footage with them if there’s an incident.

School safety has been front and center at John Stark for a while. Right after the Parkland shooting, a student here threatened violence on social media. It shook the parents and kept many kids from attending school. Suzanne Carmichael is an English teacher here.

"I mean, after Parkland I saw some kids who were terribly, terribly frightened to be in school, and that’s a sad day be for me, so anything that we as a district can put in place that allows kids to learn, I’m behind."

One of the changes put in place was an active shooter drill. After Parkland, Carmichael sat down with students and mapped out how to barricade the rooms.

"We planned for that as teachers and we have the conversations with kids about what do you think can be moved, what can’t be moved, who’s going to be in charge of this, who’s going to pull the shades, who’s going to hit the lights, who’s going to move the desks, who’s going to tip over that cabinet, because every second counts."

This year, active shooter drills will become as routine as fire drills at John Stark. But for Carmichael, improving safety isn’t just about new cameras and drills.

“It does mean unfortunately buzzers at the door and cameras and safety protocols and drills," say says, "but it also means developing those relationships with kids so that we can identify students who aren’t happy, who may act out in a way that could result in some danger to themselves or other students.”

This mental health component of school safety is getting more attention, but so far, no money for mental health has come through the new school security funding.

Perry Plummer says the next step is for New Hampshire to decide whether to invest in mental health resources as much as it has in safety cameras and locks. And as for that $30 million from the state in building upgrades? It’s nearly dried up, and there are still hundreds of applications from school districts pending review.

Sarah Gibson joined NHPR's newsroom in 2018. She reports on education and demographics.

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