Outside Tuttle Middle School in South Burlington, students brace against the morning cold. Their breath condenses in the Arctic air as they file one-by-one off yellow school buses and into the warm lobby. They carry backpacks, laptops and musical instruments.
Inside, Principal Karsten Schlenter is there to greet them. Schlenter says since Newtown, it’s been his staff’s job to create a safe environment for these students.
"We’re a little bit more cognizant of safety issues and because of that have taken additional precautions," Schlenter says.
Those precautions include a new sign-in desk, security guard, buzzer system and now surveillance cameras to monitor the front of the school. It’s part of the South Burlington School District’s response to the tragedy in Newtown, Conn.
"Given where my secretary is situated right now, she does not have a clear view of whoever is up front there," Schlenter says, pointing to the school’s entrance a few yards away. "To be able to use a buzzer system, you have to have a camera. I can’t expect her to get up and physically move over there."
The doors swing open and shut as students continue to stream in from the cold. A security guard stops parents and adults, asking them, with a smile, to mark the time and reason for their visit.
Across the country, in the wake of last month’s school shooting in Newtown, educators are walking a sort of tightrope – aiming to strike a balance between school safety and a care-free setting for their students.
Schools’ reactions to the tragedy have been all over the map in Vermont. At Townshend Elementary School, they’re installing bullet-proof glass. At Castleton Elementary School, they’ve enlisted the town constable. Hartford High School is installing a "panic button." Officials with two Windham County school districts locked school doors last week because of safety concerns. Parents received robo-calls notifying them of the decision.
Despite the wide-ranging responses, administrators agree on at least one thing.
"Truly we’re in a new phase in our country," said Ken Page, executive director of the Vermont Principals Association. Page testified before the House Education Committee last month, and asked lawmakers to move school safety to the top of their list.
He said his association is doing all it can to prevent another tragedy like Newtown, but he wonders whether the state, which has appointed a representative to speak to schools regarding safety and crisis management, can do more.
"The tragedy in Connecticut is a wakeup call for all of us," Page said in his testimony. "Vermont, because of its size, is in a unique position to highlight not only school results but also school safety."
"In addition to surveillance cameras, what is absolutely needed is a coordinated approach to safety and responding to crisis in our schools," he said.
What schools shouldn’t do, Page said, is overreact. He said schools won’t make kids and parents feel any safer by creating an atmosphere of fear or impending doom. It’s a conundrum, but Page argued all school personnel – from teachers to custodians – and not just administrators, must talk about safety and maintain a close relationship with students and families.
For now, parents like Jeff Bendoski are still getting used to the so-called new normal in South Burlington. On a recent morning, the father of three arrives at the middle school to give his son his clarinet, which he left at home. As he rushes in, Bendoski almost forgets to check in.
"Yeah, the sign-in desk is still new," he said, laughing as he retraces his steps. "So I signed in and I’m happy to comply."
And Bendoski says he’s confident school administrators are doing their best, though he’s not sure whether security cameras are the right approach. "I don’t know that it’s going to stop a shooter. I don’t know that it’s going to deter anyone," he says.
But as he heads for the parking lot, back into the cold, Bendoski says he hopes it does.