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by Jessica Brophy
At a public forum held before the start of the monthly school board meeting on Wednesday, January 2, more than 20 parents, staff and community members aired concerns about school safety.
The forum was held as a response, in part, to the December 14 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut. There, an armed individual broke into the school and killed 20 children and six adults before taking his own life.
Superintendent Mark Jenkins said the meeting was planned to allow the public to voice concerns about school safety on the island in light of that incident. Jenkins assured those present that safety protocol and lockdown plans are in place at both schools. Details of such plans are not publicized, as they would compromise their effectiveness. Elementary school principal Mike Benjamin said he had been contacted by law enforcement about setting up a walk-through of the school to discuss safety.
Jenkins said that while the Sandy Hook incident may be on everyone’s mind, it is more typical for violent events at the school to involve irate parents, or parents involved in custodial issues or potentially abusing substances.
The majority of the discussion focused on the elementary school’s potential safety weaknesses.
Jessica Gillen, who works at the elementary school as an ed. tech., said her primary concern is the central entrance. Those entering the front entrance have immediate access to the second floor, as the stairwell is located in the entrance.
Benjamin said building onto the entrance was a possibility.
Teacher Judy Rhodes said sometimes parents are offended when staff asks them who they are or what they are doing in the school. Benjamin said that in the wake of the Sandy Hook incident parents might be less insulted.
Elementary school Administrative Assistant Tiffany Dauk voiced a similar concern. “It’s my job to know who’s in the building,” said Dauk. Visitors are supposed to check in with the office, but some people don’t. Dauk said she’s also concerned about the policy of allowing parents down the halls in the morning to drop off students at classrooms, as a parent could stay and the front office would not know the parent is still in the building.
Parent Shelley Graves asked whether a locked door with a system of buzzing in had been considered. Parent Amy Vaughn said having visitors wear a bright sticker might be a way to quickly identify someone who has checked in with the office.
Carol Bolton, who described herself as a “parent and now grandparent” of children in the school, asked whether there was something that Islanders could do to be prepared for a violent incident at the schools, as the response time of law enforcement can be 45 minutes or more.
Building on Bolton’s comments, Stonington Fire Department captain Ryan Hayward said the schools should involve the local fire departments and the Memorial Ambulance Corps. “They’re your first responders,” said Hayward. “They’re the first line of defense.”
Benjamin said the Deer Isle Fire Department does a walk through of the school every year.
Hayward said he thought it would be a good idea to involve Stonington’s fire department as well, as Stonington—and perhaps the Sedgwick Fire Department—would likely be called to the scene as well in an emergency situation. “I’ve never had a tour of the school,” said Hayward, a parent who also coaches basketball in the elementary school. “There are guys on the department who maybe have never been to the school, who wouldn’t know where to go.”
Vaughn asked whether there had been a lockdown practice. Benjamin said such practice typically only involves staff training. Some audience members said they thought students should practice; another said sensitive students might be negatively affected by such drills.
There was some discussion of training and arming a select number of staff with non-lethal weapons meant to stop an attacker. Other suggestions included installing surveillance cameras, new shades for classroom doors and windows, more support for office staff, and a visual system for alerting law enforcement on the grounds or outside about the status or occupancy of a classroom during an emergency.
Teacher Mary Rees-Nutter said it was important to keep thinking about safety as budget planning begins. “The last few years, it’s been scrimp, scrimp, scrimp,” said Rees-Nutter. “We need to really talk about what our priorities are.”
Jenkins noted that Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown had locked doors, and strong safety protocols. While it is important to improve safety, not every situation can be planned for. Jenkins said this would not be the last public forum on the issue, and the school board plans to take up the issue over the next several school board meetings.