Editor’s note: This is the third in a five-part series examining school safety and emotional wellness in the wake of the Parkland, Fla., school shooting.
It’s every parent’s worst nightmare to see those terrible, haunting images of a school shooting in some other part of the country flicker across the television screen.
The thoughts come fast and furious.
“What if that was my kid? Is my kid’s school doing enough to protect against the possibility of this happening? Would my child know what to do?”
Fortunately, parents of local students haven’t had to deal with a situation like the one that unfolded on Valentine’s Day in Parkland, Fla. And for the most part, parents who talked to The Sun felt comfortable with the security procedures in place.
But there’s always that nagging question. “What if?”
Suzanne Giorno, who has young children in the district, thinks Westerly Public Schools do an admirable job with security procedures such as drills and sending home notices about safety initiatives and efforts.
But she also would like to see more interaction between parents and school staff.
“The drills are fantastic,” she told the town’s School Committee last Wednesday. “But is that enough for our students and enough for us as parents?”
Giorno said the schools should consider showing parents what kind of drills are performed.
Such information could be especially helpful to parents who want to explain a drill to younger children who might not understand why they happen.
“So that at home, we can reiterate with our child that if these things were to happen … it’s for security for you,” she said.
Young children might not understand why someone would attack a school, “or that someone would want to hurt them in the first place,” she said.
“It helps us have a little bit of a grasp as to how we can communicate with them and say, ‘You know when you were sitting in class and did that drill? This is why,’” she said.
Inviting parents to see a drill goes above what the state requires of schools.
“But I think it’s important to our community,” Giorno said.
Parents like Giorno also support what the high school students are doing to make their voices heard on issues like school safety and gun control, such as joining a planned national walkout on March 14.
“Students are empowered, and it’s our job to inspire that empowerment and say ‘Let’s do something constructive with that empowerment. You do have a right.’”
But schools also should empower students who might be reluctant to participate in something as high-profile as a walkout.
“Let’s offer them something. We might have a workshop set up where people can write 17 letters, or get together and discuss how to reach out to 17 students we haven’t talked to before.”
When talking with her 9-year-old son about school safety, Ashley Gillece, of Pawcatuck, said the recent tragedy in Parkland was part of an ongoing family discussion rather than being a new topic.
“Unfortunately for kids in elementary schools now, this is not new; they’ve heard of so many of these in school,” she said. “As much as we talk about it, it kind of gets to a point where it’s just what they hear constantly in the news every day.”
But the conversation needs to go beyond safety measures, she said.
“We need to look into what is causing the society to have the violent outbreaks,” she said.
“It’s going to be shocking and always going to be heartbreaking, but at the same time, it’s something that it isn’t the first time it’s happened,” she said. “We’ve hit this point in our society where our kids are used to this, and that’s a bigger problem.”
Gillece said bullying needed to be addressed as a potential source of the problem.
“I hear more and more about these tragedies that the child was a loner or they were bullied growing up, so I think if we can focus with our children more on trying to get rid of that factor maybe it will help more. Maybe not, but it does make the school environment better and more positive,” she said. “I think that’s something we can do, especially when you’re talking to a younger child like my son, and really just talk about being nice to everyone and not letting anyone be left out or feel left out.”
Gillece also said she reminds her son that Stonington is a community that invests in school safety and he doesn’t need to worry when he goes into the schools.
“As far as the safety of schools in Stonington, I am very thankful that after Newtown, Stonington was one of the schools that did really work on and initiate different things into the security system [whereas] other schools in the area are still slowly catching up,” she said.
Chariho parents Mike Gilluly and Dean Felicetti said they were horrified by what happened in Florida but confident their sons were safe at school.
Gilluly has a son at Charlestown Elementary School.
“We have a son in fourth grade, going into fifth, so the concern is heightened,” he said. “It’s always concerned me, but now I’ve just gotten brave enough to go and make a decision to talk to somebody. We just had a meeting with [Superintendent of Schools] Barry [Ricci] this morning in regard to that.”
Gilluly said he asked Ricci about security measures at his son’s school.
“We talked about school security, we talked about mental health of the students. There’s no information that he divulged — that is, security,” he said. “ He was very tight-lipped on that, and I want that to be that way, but I need to have some kind of reassurance that we’re on the same page. And I can tell you that while we were there doing the interview and talking with him, there was an SRO [school resource officer] doing a safety check with a safety officer.
“So he’s on the same page, and he’s way above what we’re thinking, but where is the limit? You can’t put these kids in a glass bubble. You just can’t do it.”
Asked whether he believed there was a solution to gun violence, Gilluly said he wasn’t sure.
“There is no solution to it, that I can see,” he said. “I’m a parent, I’m concerned about my son’s safety, but the solution is, people just have to start caring about each other. You’ve got all these people that want to save the planet, but we don’t even know how to take care of ourselves yet.”
Felicetti, a former Chariho basketball coach, has a son in 10th grade. Felicetti said he heard about the shootings via social media.
“When we’re getting alerts via social media, immediately, the first thing we think of as parents is our own children, right?” He said. “Your heart just sinks and there’s nothing you can do to try to put your arms around it and fully understand what’s going on …. You think of the kids and you feel for the parents and family members and anyone affected by it.”
Felicetti said he felt the security in the district was good.
“I know this for a fact: If I need to pick my son for an appointment or I go to bring him to school, even having relationships there, there is no way I can walk into a school,” he said. “So for me, understanding that they have surveillance, the vestal where you have to be vetted before you can even make it into the school. All those things are important.”
Perhaps, Felicetti said, the increased attention to school safety and security following the Florida incident will result in improvements.
“Things like this in Florida, if anything good can come of it … it’s always good to address issues like this that you may get something positive out of it,” he said. “So if there’s ways to improve on safety for the kids, then this is a means to do it.”