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.
After all, says Supt. Kimberly Shaver Hood of the Blackstone-Millville Regional School District, the security procedures in place at Sandy Hook Elementary weren’t very different than those in place at her schools. Doors are always locked, visitors must be buzzed in through an intercom system, state their purpose and sign in at the office.
Shaver Hood says the horrific events at Sandy Hook raise more questions than answers about preventing an intruder with malicious intent from gaining entry to a school. But school districts and law enforcement professionals should work to identify the gaps in their security systems, if any, and search for ways of eliminating them.
“This has certainly been a wake-up call for us,” said Shaver Hood. “If it can happen in Sandy Hook, it can happen anyplace.”
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.
Woonsocket School Committee Chairwoman Vimala Phongsavanh thinks it’s going to take more than beefed-up security to keep someone like Lanza out of public school buildings.
“People are supposed to be able to come through our doors. That’s what being a public school is all about,” says Phongsavanh.
What school districts needs is better intelligence about the possible threats they face from specific individuals in the community. There also needs to be more aggressive outreach efforts to provide them with the psychiatric interventions they need to neutralize the threat.
“Why is it you can get a gun easier than you can get access to mental health services in this country?” said Phongsavanh.
Woonsocket Schools Supt. Giovanna Donoyan said the Woonsocket Police Department provided a stepped-up presence at public schools to reassure students that it was safe to be in school.
Counselors and crisis intervention professionals were on hand to talk to students, but things went more smoothly than expected, said Donoyan.
“Kudos to all the parents who addressed this issue with their children in an age-appropriate manner over the weekend,” she said. “The children came to school feeling safe, engaged and ready to learn.”
Like other school leaders, Donoyan said the trauma of Newtown is sure to trigger a round of hand-wringing among school leaders far and wide over the issue of security.
She said she’s confident that the Woonsocket Education Department’s policies are sound and effective – so long as they’re enforced.
In particular, Donoyan said she’s put the word out that teachers must be sure all school doors are locked. If they leave the building for any reason, they’re responsible if the door isn’t resecured when they return.
“We should be enforcing these policies to the letter of the law,” she said. “A policy is only as good as the people enforcing it.”
Lisa Carcifero, executive director of the Woonsocket Prevention Coalition and a licensed clinical social worker, says it’s natural, in the wake of the Newtown trauma, for educators to be immersed in a round of soul-searching over security. But Newtown presents a particularly frustrating set of facts to respond to effectively, she said.
It may be impossible for society to gird itself against the likes of someone like Lanza, she says.
“If there are things we know we can do, we should do them,” she says. “However, people have to understand there are things out there – like other people’s behavior – that we can never control.”
North Smithfield Schools Supt. Steven Lindberg appreciates the call for tighter security, but he says schools shouldn’t be turned into “fortresses.”
“This is a tough one for me because I was an elementary school principal,” he said. “We’re not correctional facilities. How far do we go?”
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.
"We are reviewing our safety emergency procedures and we also are providing teachers and parents with talking tips from the National Association of School Psychologists," said Burrillville School Superintendent Frank W. Pallotta.
"The Burrillville Police Department will also be meeting with the school principals to review emergency response procedures."
"Additionally, I am forwarding a communication to parents reassuring them that we will continue to do everything within our power to provide a safe school environment," Pallotta said. "Lastly, we have crisis teams in every building to speak with any student or staff requiring support."
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."
Foster-Glocester Regional School District officials on Monday were reassuring parents on the district's web site that all of the district's schools are secured and safe, including the new Ponganset Middle School.
"The Ponaganset Middle School is a secure building and all doors are locked once students have entered the building each morning and remain locked during the school day, except for one door at the front entrance," the posting says. "All doors are locked at 3 p.m. and no one is allowed to enter the building and or access the academic portion of the building.
As of Monday, school officials said, the door to the main office from the front entrance will be locked.
The district also posted a brief tip sheet from the National Association of School Psychologists on how parents can talk to children about violence.
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.”