HAVERHILL — The City Council agreed to send a letter to the School Committee recommending it hire an outside vendor to conduct a comprehensive review of school security across the district.
It is one recommendation made in response to an incident on July 29 when a 16-year-old summer school student fled Haverhill High after a teacher and security guards spotted the student in possession of what appeared to be a gun.
Police found and arrested the student up the street from the building on Broadway, but have been unable to locate the gun, Mayor James Fiorentini said.
School officials said they were making plans to provide teachers and other staff with additional training in ALICE (Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter and Evacuate), which is a plan for responding to a violent intruder event.
At Tuesday night's City Council meeting, councilor Joseph Bevilacqua suggested the high school beef up its security by installing a metal detector.
"Today we need to take potential threats very seriously," he said.
Mayor James Fiorentini acknowledged this is a "scary and frightening era" and that there has always been a problem with guns.
He recalled working as a substitute teacher in Medford in 1969, when a seventh grader brought a loaded handgun to school.
"Nobody thought that this child was going to shoot up the school, or that there would be a massive shooting," Fiorentini said, reflecting on this past weekend's mass shootings in Texas and Ohio. "No parent should have to fear that when they send their children shopping that their life is in danger."
Fiorentini said his initial reaction was to install a metal detector, as Bevilacqua suggested, however the high school has more than 37 entry or exit doors.
He suggested the city issue a request for proposals to hire a "top notch security company" to evaluate school security. The mayor said this type of a comprehensive review would cost less than $50,000.
But, Fiorentini said the first thing that must be addressed at the high school are the many points of entry and exit.
"It's more complicated than it seems," Fiorentini said. "You just can't lock kids in."
School Superintendent Margaret Marotta explained what happened last week after the boy was seen inside the high school with what appeared to be a gun.
"I believe in this situation, the SRO (School Resource Officer) was contacted, rather than 911 being called, because things happened so quickly and simultaneously that the student was apprehended almost as quickly as things were happening in real time," Marotta said.
She said plans were already in place for providing additional ALICE training to staff and then providing ALICE training to students.
Marotta later explained that most teachers and staff have already gone through one round of ALICE training, and participate in the next phase, which is an online module offering a higher level of training, as part of their professional development the day before school starts.
"This will be followed up by in-person training with a certified person working with teachers and going over what they learned online," Marotta said. "By Sept. 30, we expect to have everybody online trained, in-person trained, and a drill done with the teachers in all our schools."
Marotta said she plans to have a discussion at the next School Committee meeting about the city hiring an outside consultant to conduct a comprehensive review of school security.
"Unfortunately, these incidents (incidents of violence) are common enough across the country that we've already been thinking about these things and we've already been putting things in place, so we shouldn't have a knee-jerk reaction to this," Marotta said. "We should have a plan in place to continually making our schools safer."
During the meeting, Councilor Thomas Sullivan read a letter that was posted on Facebook by special education teacher Joanna Dix of Haverhill, who opposed the use of metal detectors.
"Schools are supposed to create a culture that is welcoming and supportive," Dix wrote. "Metal detectors create a feeling of danger and suspicion, the exact opposite of how we should approach teenagers."
Dix advocated for hiring more teachers to reduce class size and to "pack" schools with counselors to develop relationships with students and create a sense of trust, and provide students with mentors.
Sandra Ward, of Haverhill, a parent, spoke in favor of metal detectors.
Ward recalled Somerville High School implementing metal detectors and issuing lanyards with IDs in response to students bringing guns and knives to school when she attended the school.
She said the lanyards helped address issues of unwanted visitors, while students became accustomed to walking though a metal detector and felt safer.
"People do not like change," Ward said. "You might have those that oppose metal detectors, but you get used to things. We felt secure walking through our school."