Local educators express confidence in plans to protect students from gun violence

Local educators express confidence in plans to protect students from gun violence

Editor’s note: This is the fourth in a five-part series examining school safety and emotional wellness in the wake of the Parkland, Fla., school shooting.

WESTERLY — Michael Gleason and a new group of students had just started this semester’s world affairs class at Westerly High School when news of the shooting in Florida broke.

“All of a sudden, boom, here’s this major event that we’ve got to discuss and it’s very difficult to discuss for many different reasons and we don’t know each other as a class that well. So that was tough.”

Reaction to the shooting in Florida has dominated the discussion among his world affairs students in the two-and-a-half weeks since.

“That’s what we do, talk about current events. They were very engaged from the moment after it happened,” Gleason said. “What were their concerns, their thoughts about what happened.”

Students in the class were comfortable talking about it and asking questions, he said.

However he was more cautious about bringing it up with his younger students in ninth-grade world history.

“If you want to talk about it, we can, but I’m not going to force it,” he told the class.  

Gleason said the reaction of students is different from past mass shootings. He cites the power of social media as a main reason.

“The kids feel more engagement over this one,” he said. “They’re watching kids in Florida all of a sudden on the news being activists. They’re doing a march on Washington, they’re organizing national events around what’s become a passion due to living through it.”

Gleason said he’s in favor of the planned March 14 national student walkout for two reasons. He supports students holding a tribute to the 17 people who lost their lives in the Florida shooting.

“And if they do walk out, that’s not the end of it. It’s not 17 minutes out of class,” he said. “In a small way, it’s what we can do to help further the cause of what these kids in Florida feel very passionate about.”

Gleason, who has taught for 20 years at Westerly, said the school is safer than it was 15 years ago. He said the district has been proactive about making changes, and that it’s important for students to have input.  

“I think the administration has listened to the kids more in the last two weeks, which is another positive,” he said. “They’ve taken some ownership in this, and they deserve that.”

For most educators, school safety is a topic of ongoing discussion, and was before the shooting as well, Westerly High School Principal Todd Grimes said.

Grimes does not support “arming more people in schools.”

“And any law enforcement officer I’ve spoken with recently and in the past doesn’t support it either,” Grimes said. “But I know there are some people, some administrators too, who do support it.”

Westerly is one of a handful of districts in the state that also has a safety officer, retired police officer Mike Turano, who meets regularly with administrators.

“We meet monthly to talk about any issue that comes up about school safety,” Grimes said. “I’m really happy that we have that partnership and have those active conversations.”

Administrators also recently met with local police leadership to discuss preparedness.

“You can’t be starting a plan when something’s going wrong,” Grimes said.

The school also has written plans for how to respond in an emergency event, such as a shooting.

“Every single detail is important,” Grimes said of the plan. “We can never know too much.”

Working together

Superintendent Van Riley said a strong, collaborative relationship with the town’s police department has increased safety in the Stonington schools.

“We have always taken safety as our top concern or issue for students and staff, and will continue to do so,” Riley said Monday.

Riley said he meets with Police Chief Darren Stewart, Capt. Todd Olson and Officer Edward Cullen on a regular basis to review the schools’ safety plans.

Stewart, Olson and Cullen also met with the entire school administration to go over the latest thinking about measures staff and teachers can take in an emergency event, Riley said.

Cullen will be meeting with elementary and middle school teachers Friday to go over the newest techniques in school safety.

The administration is also evaluating facility issues, such as cameras and videotaping and other physical-plant-related safety concerns, such as locked double-entry doors.

“Our two new elementary schools are fully equipped with video-recording and camera surveillance and we also have the double-entry in the vestibule, where you need to be buzzed in to one area and then into the office,” he said. “We’ll be adding that to the Mystic Middle School in the near future so all of our schools will have that double physical barrier.”

He said the schools also use Raptor Technologies, which checks visitors identification against a national database of criminal and sexual offenders.

The classrooms in West Vine are also equipped with Code Red buttons that the teacher can press, which bypasses the usual 911 steps and goes straight to the police department and to every police car in the area, Riley said.

“We were the first one in the state to implement the Code Red system; it saves minutes of response time,” he said.

Riley said the Code Red system would be added to both new elementary schools and to the middle and high school buildings.

All of the video surveillance systems in all of the school buildings are also being updated to coincide with the schools’ new technology, he said.

“But I’d say working with our police department is the most important thing that we do because ideas change and protocols change and we’re sure we’re right in line with the latest thinking with the police,” he said.

Riley also released a memo Friday with recommended responses to school safety for parents and guardians of children.

At the elementary level, Riley said discussions about school safety and gun violence should come from parent, and recommended two websites containing age-appropriate information.

Riley said the students at the two middle schools have requested a special activity on March 14 to coincide with the national walkout. Student leaders and staff were working to structure a safe event where students could share thoughts about school safety, he said.

At Stonington High School, specific details are being finalized for a “walk-in” before school, which will be a student-run event, Riley said.

He also said some high school students were working with Rep. Diana Urban, D-North Stonington, to organize a public event on March 24, which will not be a Stonington Public Schools event.

Students at Stonington High School have expressed a desire to create a meaningful statement on March 14 in the aftermath of the Parkland tragedy, said Mark Friese, principal of Stonington High School, on Monday.

On March 14, the National School Walkout will comprise students, faculty and supporters walking out of their schools for 17 minutes at 10 a.m. across each time zone to honor the 17 students killed by a gunman at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Feb. 14.

The “walk in” will be followed by a short all-school assembly.

Friese said he was working with the students to create a structured and safe event.

“I’m going to do what makes the kids feel the best because this is something they are living with on a daily basis,” he said. “I am going to do what the kids want as long as it is controlled and safe and meaningful.”

He said children in this generation “think about things much differently than generations in the past.

“I think they‘ve had much more exposure to things happening around the world as a routine so while they take everything seriously they’re also very pragmatic in their thoughts because unfortunately in their world this has become the norm,” he said. “That’s why a lot of these kids want to have conversations because it is becoming the norm, and I think that is frightening to many people.”

Talking about the Parkland tragedy in the context of an informal class discussion has been a helpful for the students, Dane Lewis, a health teacher at Stonington High School, said Tuesday.

“We delve into current events and that’s a current health issue,” he said. “The kids are more than willing to share their concerns and insights and ideas and I think it’s healthy just for them to have an opportunity to get it off their chest and vent a little bit as well.”

Lewis said students were concerned about how safe they were in school and he explained that Cullen met with the entire staff for half a day following the Parkland shooting to go over safety measures and mitigation plans.

“I explained to the students that we’re so close to the police station that in the case of the shooter, all we have to do is keep you safe and stay out of harm’s way for literally a minute or maybe two before the police get here from across the street,” he said. “Knowing we have a mitigation plan and how close we are to the police station was reassuring for most of them.”

A well-rounded plan

In his monthly email message to the Chariho community, Superintendent of Schools Barry Ricci tried to reassure parents and students that the district had strict safety protocols in place.

“I have received a number of questions about our security procedures,” he wrote. “ For obvious reasons, I will not publicly disclose our protocols, but I will tell you that all our buildings have been the subject of a security assessment, that all of our schools have crisis plans, that we practice safety protocols, and that we have made investments in school security. Further, the provision of mental health services is now more effective in that those students with the greatest need are most intensively serviced.”

Ricci encouraged students to research the issue and then take informed action on school safety.

“I sense a movement by high school students to address the issue of student safety at school,” Ricci wrote. “Organized, student voice can be very powerful. I hope that our own students will take the time to research and understand these complex issues, to listen to varying viewpoints, and come to understand the power of their own voice.”

Chariho Principal Craig MacKenzie met with a group of students when they returned Feb. 26 after being off for Presidents Week, to get an idea of how they were feeling and whether it was a concern.

“Some of the early feedback from the students was they feel like they want to have a voice and have an opportunity to voice their concerns,” he said. “Not only as a district, but as a school we’re really committed to find ways to help give them voice. … I just let them know that we understand that we feel very strongly about their concerns and that need some sort of a vehicle for expressing and sharing. We’re really committed to finding a way to make that happen.”

MacKenzie said he had asked the Student Advisory Board to find out how students were feeling and get back to him on how the mood of the student body at large.

“Im excited for the opportunity in the coming weeks to hear from them about some things that they feel like they need to do, not only to express themselves, but hopefully to try to learn a little bit more about school safety, whether it be from members of the community or through forums that we create internally,” he said.

The Chariho district holds regular safety drills focusing on fire, a lockdown, “shelter in place” and evacuation of the schools. Specific security measures cannot be divulged, but MacKenzie said the Florida tragedy presented an opportunity to re-examine safety protocols.

“I guess I see it as an opportunity to really examine closely, which is a great ting to do frequently, where it is we do well and where are some of the places where we need to improve school safety,” he said. “I feel good about the system and protocols that we have in place, and most importantly I feel good about our school community’s willingness — and that includes students, parents, faculty and staff members — their willingness to share when they see something, or someone, out of the ordinary in and around our buildings.”

Chariho Vice Principal Andrea Spas agreed that regular drills and a close relationships with Richmond Police and School Resource Officers were important to school safety.

“We are fortunate to have supportive School Resource Officers on our campus and a strong relationship with our local police,” she said. “I believe that preparation, practice and awareness are essential when it comes to the safety of our schools.  This is why it is so important that campus-wide and school-based drills are conducted on a regular basis.”

At Chariho Middle School, Principal Gregory Zenion said he had difficulty understanding how a school shooting could have happened yet again.

“My reaction was why? Why again?” he said. “Haven’t we had enough? It just doesn’t seem like, in a civilized society, that this should keep reoccurring. It seems that we can have solutions to help prevent this, but if things don’t change, it will happen again.”

Zenion said he was confident that the middle school, and the entire Chariho campus, are secure.

“Can you be more secure? Yes, but you know at what point do you become a prison?” he said. “There’s a price when you step up the security. For example, do you want metal detectors? Do you want that culture? … But I think the communities decide that. But I’m not sure the Chariho community would support security at that level.”

Asked about the proposal to arm some teachers, Zenion said he was concerned about firearms training, and wondered whether it was within a teacher’s mandate to carry a gun.

“I’m a firm supporter of the Second Amendment, but I’m not sure that is a teacher’s place, or their responsibility,” he said. “ I also worry about the training that would be required. If you look at what happened in Florida, you had law enforcement, who are trained and re-trained constantly, who did not, from what’s been reported, enter the building, did not know how to respond, was not positive where the shots were coming from. You know, you give a teacher 12-hour training and then give them a gun and send them on their way — I don’t think that’s the answer.”

Zenion said he wanted parents to know that their children’s safety was his top priority.

“Number one is the safety and security of the building and of everyone in it,” he said. “I feel like that’s our top job. If you don’t have a safe environment, kids can’t learn and teachers can’t teach. Number two is education. People don’t always like it when I say that, but ultimately, they go hand in hand.”

Richmond Elementary School Principal Sharon Martin has a friend who lives in Parkland and whose two children attend Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

“The way I found out is, I have a very close friend from college who has two children there,” she said. “I found out from her before I even heard about it on the news, so it hits very close to home, being as close as I am to her family and watching her kids grow up with my kids. So, it was a very upsetting night. I communicated with my own children about the fact that we knew kids who were there. They were safe, they were home.”

Martin said the Florida tragedy had had no outward effects on her elementary students, but she suggested that adults might consider listening to what young people have to say.

“Maybe it’s time for the adults to listen to kids,” she said. “They haven’t been listening to each other, maybe let the kids’ voice speak for the importance of coming to school and letting the only thing on your mind be ‘what am I going to learn today?’”

Like the other administrators, Martin said she considered student safety her top priority.

“I remember becoming an administrator and hearing the words ‘in loco parentis’ meaning that here, I’m here in place of the parents,” she said. “When I started this job, my youngest was in kindergarten and I have always felt like I’m here to keep them safe, and that’s a huge responsibility.”

Christopher Safford, who teaches health and physical education at Chariho, said he is always affected by violent incidents like the shootings in Florida.

“Whether it be in a school or whether it be in a workplace, it always makes you think about where you work, or the school that you’re in  if you’re a student,” he said. “So it’s always concerning, and my thinking is what can we do better to prevent it, to be more prepared?”

Safford, who attended Chariho, said he remembered a time when gun violence wasn’t an issue.

“I went through kindergarten all the way to high school, and then I was away for four years for college, and then I came right back here after college,” he said. “So I’ve seen, definitely in this district, how yeah, it’s definitely changed. For me, I think it’s changed for the better when it comes to preparedness, but of course, when I was in school, that wasn’t something that we thought about. When I was in school, I think there were fights — there was more of that …. As society changes, I feel we’ve kind of got to roll with that and prepare for things that we never used to have to prepare for.”

In addition to academics, the district was focusing on the emotional and social well-being of the students, and Safford said that focus had also resulted in changes to the physical education program.

“We’ve actually changed what we do in phys ed, where we now incorporate more mindfulness and meditation and ways to relieve stress, and that’s been a huge focus for us,” he said. “At first it was different because it’s not the typical gym class, but what we find is over time, they start to appreciate it more, to the point where they actually ask for more of it. Not only is it great for students, it’s also great for the staff, for us. I’ve found a difference in myself this year by us implementing that.”

The meditation takes place in a multi-purpose room now known as the Charger Wellness Room.

“We have a Charger Fitness Center and now we have the Charger Wellness Room,” Safford said. “I just think there’s a lot of benefits to mindfulness and ways that we can relieve stress and to take a time out in a very busy atmosphere.”

Safford said phys ed teachers were preoccupied with student safety because they often bring students outside the school.

“We are outside a lot,” he said. “I haven’t had any students express any concerns, but it’s discussed within our department, about what would we do. One thing we do really well here at Chariho is we do have protocols and we practice.”

Asked if he thought teachers should be armed, Safford said the most important safety measures were preparedness and practice.

“I haven’t given that [any] thought, even though it’s in the news, so I really don’t have an opinion on that,” he said. “I haven’t formulated one yet. But I think just having a plan and open communication with students and staff, I think that’s very important.”

Safford said feeling secure at school was fundamental to both teaching and learning.

“We want a very comfortable learning environment, a safe environment,” he said. “I think if our students and staff are constantly thinking of the dangers of things that could happen, that would definitely have a negative impact on learning."

Chariho School Committee members Clay Johnson of Richmond and Lisa Macaruso of Hopkinton have expressed differing views on gun control during at least one committee meeting.

Contacted for this story, Johnson said he wanted to study the issue of school shootings further.

“I haven’t studied it much,” he said. “If this going to be something that comes up at a School Committee meeting, I look forward to a robust discussion. I always learn a lot at those meetings.”

Macaruso said she hoped students would be given a chance to voice their opinions about school violence.

“I am heartbroken by this latest in a series of horrific school shootings,” she said. “I am cautiously optimistic that the student voices coming from Marjory Stoneham Douglas High School will finally bring about the changes needed in our systems and force long-overdue legislative action. I encourage the Chariho students to do the same — speak truth to power. Write to the papers, come to School Committee meetings, be agents of change."

Arming teachers, Macaruso said, is not the answer.

"Regarding arming classroom teachers, in my view less access to automized weapons and increased access to mental health supports are the way forward. The only personnel on the Chariho campus with weapons should be trained law enforcement.”





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