Parents, admin discuss tightening school safety in wake of Florida massacre

  • ConVal students file out of school on Wednesday afternoon. Staff photo by Nicholas Handy

Monadnock Ledger-Transcript
Wednesday, February 21, 2018 5:52PM

A shooting at a high school in Florida last week that left 17 dead and 15 injured has thrust the discussion of school safety into the spotlight locally.

“We are now averaging one school shooting a week nationally and with this current presidential administration that will mean we will have 156 more shootings over the next three years,” Alex Murray-Golay, who has a child that attends Peterborough Elementary School, said during a ConVal school board meeting on Tuesday night.

After the shooting in Florida, Murray-Golay sent an email to ConVal administrators regarding safety. One of the things she asked was if the district could lock doors within the schools at all times.

Aimee Mullahy, who has a child that attends Antrim Elementary School, approached the school board on Tuesday night with a proposal to launch a fundraiser with the goal of purchasing barracuda intruder door systems for each of the classrooms in Antrim, and hopefully later, the remainder of the schools in the district. Mullahy said she has been in contact with the company who would travel to the area to train people how to use them.

“But, frankly, they are easy enough that, god forbid, a child could use it if they needed to,” Mullahy said.

She asked administrators and the board if a group were to raise the funds and purchased the devices if the district would use them. ConVal Superintendent Kimberly Saunders didn’t say one way or the other if the gift would be accepted and said the district would need more information before it gave a concrete answer.

“Before we accepted a gift we would need to see what it was, how it would interact, whether it actually would fit into our buildings or not,” Saunders said.

Saunders directed Mullahy’s question to the district’s Facilities Director Tim Grossi and asked the two to meet and discuss if the devices would be a good fit or not for its schools.

Saunders said that school officials also need to have a discussion about enhancing safety mechanisms and how those changes can shift cultures in its schools.

“This really calls for a balance between physical safety, that reaction to close the doors, lock it tight and don’t let anyone in, have armed officers, and metal detectors … that kind of a thing, and the psychological safety to avoid over-protective environments,” Saunders said.

She said when she first started working at ConVal about 10 years ago, parents could walk their kid to class in the morning.

“We have slowly changed those cultures,” Saunders said, adding that’s not because they don’t want parents in the buildings, but because they need to balance a welcoming atmosphere with student safety.

School safety measures

Wilton-Lyndeborough Cooperative School District Superintendent Bryan Lane said schools have been on “heightened awareness” ever since the shooting in Columbine High School in April of 1999 that left 12 students and one teacher dead. Since Columbine, there have been many other school shootings, including at Virginia Tech and Sandy Hook Elementary School.

Lane said all school districts in the state are required to have emergency plans that they share with the state’s Department of Education. Lane said they perform a minimum of 10 drills per year, which cover a variety of scenarios that could play out from intruders entering the building to fire drills. In addition, the Wilton-Lyndeborough district’s doors are locked throughout the building with visitors requiring permission to enter the building. Lane said there are security cameras in its buildings that law enforcement officials have access to. He said the district works with town emergency planners, which include first responders, fire officials, paramedics, and police officers, to develop a strategy if something were to happen. Lane said every time there is an “incident” in the country, the district and emergency planners review their procedures. He said after last week’s shooting in Florida the parties reviewed the plan and said that “everyone is on the same page.”

Mascenic Interim Superintendent Stephen Russell started in the district last June and said a lot of safety measures had been taken prior to his arrival. Russell said Mascenic students also practice lockdown drills once or twice a year. There’s a safety committee made up of local police officials, school administrators, facilities managers, and members of the bus company. Russell said the committee meets monthly to discuss student safety. This month’s meeting will include an agenda item regarding bus evacuation drills. He said the evacuation will likely take place in the spring and will bus students from school to a nearby safe site.

Russell said there is a buzz-in system at the schools, where visitors need to go through the front desk in order to enter the building. He said there are surveillance cameras both inside and outside its buildings that can be monitored in real time by the principal and assistant principal and there’s a software system that allows law enforcement officials to monitor those screens as well. The school doesn’t have a school resource officer, who are law enforcement officers responsible for providing security in schools, but Russell said local officers walk through the schools on a semi-regular basis.

ConVal has many of the same procedures in place across the district, including emergency plans, ongoing drills, buzz-in systems, and said it also sends some of its staff to conferences regarding the matter.

“Over the last four or five years we have spent a significant amount of time, a significant amount of energy, and a significant amount of money on really examining our safety planning and responses,” Saunders said.

The Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, where the shooting occurred, was reported to have many safety measures in place as well. A news article published in the Sun-Sentinel, a newspaper based in Florida, reported that the high school had gates and emergency procedures to keep students safe. The article says that the school went into a procedure known as Code Red after they found out a shooter was in the building. Doors were locked and student and staff were told to stay in their classrooms. But the suspect Nikolas Cruz is reported to have pulled the school’s fire alarm, which overrides the locking mechanisms in place.

Preventing tragedy

Local superintendents said the best way to prevent these shootings to forge strong relationships between staff and students.

Russell said there are school guidance counselors on site to help students who are struggling. He said the district does emphasis staff and student connection. He said staff members are encouraged to make efforts to forge connections with each of the students, and although there’s no real way to ensure that bonds have been formed, it’s a small enough district that he thinks it’s possible.

Russell said after the Douglas school shooting happened, Mascenic officials did review “several students of concern,” touching base about those individuals and their current circumstances.

Lane said if a staff member becomes aware of an issue, people are encouraged to speak out.

“We go by the model, ‘if you see something, say something,’” Lane said.

Saunders also said preventing such tragedies from happening is an important piece of the discussion during the meeting on Tuesday night.

“The thing we maybe hear about less frequently is really creating a safe and caring environment and really planning for social, emotional health for both students and staff,” Saunders said, as a preventative measure.

Abby Kessler can be reached at 924-7172, ext. 234 or akessler@ledgertranscript.com.