As a somber procession of funerals began in shell-shocked Newtown, Conn., local educators on Monday said the nation’s deadliest massacre at an elementary school should trigger a broad discussion about how to make schools safer than they are already.
In Pawtucket, Schools Supt. Deborah Cylke took a multi-step approach to the school tragedy in Newtown, Conn. On Saturday, she sent out an e-mail alert to parents reassuring them that the school district's emergency management procedures had been updated last year and that principals and teachers regularly conduct fire and other emergency drills as outlined by state statute.
All of Pawtucket schools are locked and have a security camera and buzzer/intercom system in place to admit parents or other visitors. Cylke noted that the front office staff at each of the schools is diligent about monitoring who enters the schools. Since the incident, she said clerks have been instructed to be even more prudent about obtaining proper identification before letting anyone inside.
Cylke also asked Police Chief Paul King to have a police cruiser outside of every school building at the school start and dismissal times from now through at least Wednesday of this week. She notified parents in her e-mail that the purpose of having a community police presence was to send the message to the children and their teachers and staff members “that you are our priority ” and remind them that school “is still a safe, welcoming place.”
Stating that “A parent is a child's first and best teacher,” Cylke in her e-mail also urged parents to talk to their children about the shooting. She provided two attachments, one from the National Association of School Psychologists and another from the Rhode Island Department of Education outlining tips for parents, teachers and other caregivers on how to talk to children about violence. Cylke's message to parents and the attachments can be viewed on the Pawtucket School Department's website: www.psdri.net .
Cylke said that in the coming days, she, King, and the city's emergency management director will be holding a debriefing to discuss the reactions and to review procedures. “An incident like this causes you to reflect on how well we are prepared, and what procedures we would want to add,” said Cylke. “That being said, I think our procedures are in good order. We just instituted the buzzer system and cameras last year.”
However, Cylke also noted that Adam Lanza apparently broke into Sandy Hook Elementary School and that the two shooters at Columbine High School in Colorado were students there themselves.
“It's challenging because in any of these rampages, you can think you have everything in place but someone has a different plan,” she said.
Cylke added that she has always encouraged the action plan of “see something/say something” and has urged administrators to treat any suspicious report with an abundance of caution. She said the recent lockdown that was instituted at Slater Junior High School after a student reported that another youth had gestured like he might have a weapon was “a perfect example of this.” “We must all be diligent and aware and treat everything like it is serious,” she said.
Lincoln Schools Supt. Georgia Fortunato says her district has been ahead of the curve on security for some time. It’s already got surveillance cameras at doorways, and this spring the district hired an architect to think up strategies to redesign entryways with an eye toward improving security.
Now Newtown raises questions about whether it’s all enough.
“You’re right, we don’t have bulletproof glass,” she said. “As educators we all have to be kind of vigilant and attentive to improving the safety of our buildings. We need to meet with law enforcement and security experts to make our buildings as safe as possible.”
On Monday, Newtown began seeing the first in a gut-wrenching series of funerals after a lone gunman forced his way inside the elementary school, somehow shattering a glass window to get in.
Once inside, Adam Lanza, 20, a man who reportedly suffered from mental problems, went on a killing spree, murdering 20 children around six or seven years old, as well as six adult teachers, before taking his own life.
Lanza’s mother, who was also murdered by her son on Friday, was a substitute teacher at Sandy Hook and some media reports have described her as an obsessive “prepper” — someone who was gearing up for the end of the world by taking an assortment of pre-emptive survivalist measures, such as stockpiling firearms.
Her son reportedly used weapons registered to her in the massacre.
“Our thoughts and prayers go out to the families whose children and loved ones were the victims of the tragic shooting in Newtown,” Rhode Island Education Commissioner Deborah Gist said.
“As educators, our very first priority is to ensure that our children are safe in school, and I want to assure Rhode Islanders that we have a number of protocols and practices in place to keep our schools safe and secure.”
Gist said RIDE continues to monitor the investigation with an eye toward learning whether it’s possible to improve the security measures already in place.
“If we can learn anything from analysis of this crime to make our schools even safer we will certainly do so,” she said.
Throughout the region, school officials took measures to reassure parents that students were safe in school. Some also set up links to web sites with advice from professionals on how to help children cope with difficult thoughts about death and making sense of the senseless.
In Cumberland, School Superintendent Philip D. Thornton said the district is preparing an up-to-date report on individual school needs with regard to security and communications.
"This plan will be shared with the School Committee, law enforcement and community leaders," Thornton said. "Counselors are also ready and available in all schools."
Similarly, Lincoln School Committee Chairwoman Elizabeth Robson said the district sent letters to parents through e-mail expressing condolences for the losses in Newtown while reassuring parents about security in local schools. She said the letter mentioned regular lockdown drills, availability of school counseling and advice on how to help children cope.
“It’s horrifying,” she said, “to believe these tragic events can take place in what we have come to traditionally believe is the safest place for children to be.”