By Matt Murphy

STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE

BOSTON -- Taking heed from the recent tragic school shootings across the country, Gov. Deval Patrick plans to sign an executive order on Thursday establishing a task force focused on school safety and security.

The move comes days after a 12-year-old boy wounded two students at a Roswell, New Mexico middle school when he walked into the gymnasium and opened fire using a sawed-off shotgun.

The incident in New Mexico was the latest tragedy to strike at a public school following a shooting in December at a suburban Denver high school and the tragedy a little over a year ago in Newtown, Connecticut when 20-year-old Adam Lanza walked into an elementary school and killed 20 children and six adults before turning a gun on himself.

The Connecticut shootings sparked a nationwide debate about gun laws and violence.

"No child will be able to succeed academically if they don't first feel safe in school, and no teacher will be able to teach at their best if they aren't confident there's a plan in place to ensure their school is well prepared for an emergency," Patrick said in a statement.

The governor plans to sign the order after a roundtable discussion with parents, educators, public safety and public health officials at the A.C. Whalen Elementary School in Revere.

The 20-member panel will be chaired by Education Secretary Matthew Malone, Public Safety Secretary Andrea Cabral and Health and Human Services Secretary John Polanowicz.

"By fostering collaboration among schools, district leadership, public safety and public health officials, community organizations and school building authority officials, we will develop a plan for creating safer school structures, safer school environments and more comprehensive training programs and protocols for response should emergencies happen," Patrick said.

Malone said the goal is for the task force to develop policy recommendations by the summer that school districts can model for the start of the next school year in September. The work will focus on updating school safety plans, recommending school safety improvements and procedures in case of emergency, and drafting school-centered training and exercise programs.

"This is not a mandate. What we're doing is offering a set of tools and best practices," Malone said.

While some larger urban school district in the state have been able to receive federal funding to help develop safety plans and upgrade security technology and training programs, most small districts have not had the same help, Malone said. The governor's budget, which is due next week, is not expected to include funding for this initiative, but Malone said the administration may look in the near future to develop a competitive grant program for school districts to implement the recommendations.

"Like climate change, we want to be responsive in providing tools that can prevent and make sure in Massachusetts we don't have any tragic incidents like you had in Connecticut, Colorado and New Mexico. These incidents are too many and should not be allowed to happen," Malone said.

Malone, who joined the Patrick administration last January after leading the Brockton Public School system as superintendent, brings a unique perspective to task force, having dealt with a school shooting from an administrative view.

During his second month on the job in Brockton in 2009, a former Brockton High School student was shot in the legs by another former student after hours outside the school gymnasium while basketball tryouts were going on inside. The victim managed to enter the gym where the school's basketball coach was able to attend to him until emergency personnel arrived, according to Malone.

Malone said the shooting led leaders in the community to more closely examine their safety plans, and strengthen not just emergency response procedures, but planning for crisis management after an incident. "What we realized was that we were not ready," Malone said.

Brockton happened to be likely the only school district in the state at the time with an armed school police force that reported directly to the superintendent. Malone said he recognized that structure as a weakness and put a Brockton police officer in charge of school police force, which led to better training and preparedness. 

"This is what keeps superintendents and teachers and principals up at night," Malone said. "Our parents who send us their kids demand and expect that their children are kept safe while they're in our care. This is not something we take lightly and not something we can afford to fail in."

The task force will include representative from the education, police and those who provide wrap-around support services for students, including members from the School Building Authority, the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency, the State Police, the Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association, the Department of Public Safety and the assistant secretary for children, youth and families.