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Changes eyed after VUHS security breach: Procedures, locks among the options

VERGENNES — After the Oct. 5 incident in which two Northlands Job Corps students snuck into Vergennes Union High School during school hours, an evaluation of VUHS security procedures is under way that will almost certainly mean changes to the school’s physical plant and protocols, according to officials.
The male Northlands students entered VUHS through a back door that had been left propped open against school policy, and then talked their way into a classroom by posing as two of the German exchange students now visiting the school.
In the classroom and again in a school hallway the unauthorized visitors made two female students uncomfortable, hugging one, and tugging on and possibly slightly lifting the shirt of another — accounts vary on that point — and asking them for phone numbers and other contact information. They left when told to do so by a male VUHS student, according to police.
Vergennes Police Chief George Merkel said the Northlands students’ treatment of the VUHS female students was unfortunate at best, but based on his department’s investigation did not rise to the “lewd and lascivious” standard that would have warranted a criminal citation.
The Northlands administration expelled the students, who had left the Macdonough Drive campus without permission, Merkel said.
Addison Northwest School District Superintendent JoAn Canning said she and VUHS Principal Stephanie Taylor took the security breach “very seriously”; moved quickly to let students, parents and teachers know what had happened through emails and phone calls; and will be taking further action.
“We attempted to get communication out to the community, and also responded to a myriad of phone calls about the concerns,” Canning said. “We will be making some immediate changes as well as considering some longer-term changes. We want parents to know their kids are safe in schools.”
Procedures will be reinforced with the VUHS staff, Canning said.
“This was an unfortunate breach in our safety protocol, and when something like that happens, just the fact that it happens makes people sit up and pay more close attention, and that has happened with the staff,” she said. “And we’ll continue to review through scenarios as well as practice sessions what we need to do to respond when something comes about like this.”
Taylor said step one was simply reminding staff members and students of existing procedures.
“We have reviewed our procedures and re-emphasized the need for everyone’s cooperation in following existing rules and expectations for keeping doors locked and to check them during the day. The students entered through a propped open rear door that should have been secure,” Taylor said.
Taylor said the school had already before last week’s incident recently undergone a “security audit” with ANWSD facilities director Ken Sullivan.
“We are evaluating the recommendations made as part of that process to increase security while maintaining authorized access,” she said. “We are also reviewing protocols that allow easy identification of visitors who will remain in the building.”
Canning also addressed that latter point, while also saying the teacher should have been more vigilant when people unknown to him entered his classroom.
“Stephanie and I had a conversation directly with the teacher involved, and he understands the serious nature of what happened,” Canning said. “Part of the confusion was the students pretended to be some of our German students, and that took our teacher off-guard. That’s not an excuse. That’s how he reacted. That prompted us to think about making sure, whether you are an adult visitor or a student visitor, that every visitor has to have an identification on, some kind of a lanyard.”
Canning also said on Monday the school would be getting new locks “within the week for all outside doors,” once a decision is made on what style will be the best choice.
“We are evaluating our best options right now,” she said.
In the long term, officials will study not only the internal audit, but also a Vermont School Boards Insurance Trust report that Canning said outlines safety procedures for each of the ANWSD schools.
Canning said long-term changes will be examined as the ANWSD board prepares its district-wide budget for Town Meeting Day.
“We’re reviewing that now to see what we can do in the short term and what we can do in the long term. And I’m sure that when the budget-building process comes up that we’ll be aligning some of those needs to the necessary resources,” Canning said.
In the meantime, Taylor said last week’s incident will serve as an alert for everyone at VUHS.
“The message we are sending to both faculty and students is that we are the best security measure we have,” Taylor said. “Everyone has a responsibility to maintain the security of the building, from checking a door to see if it is latched to politely inquiring about a visitor’s purpose if they are not identified.”

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