Westerly Police Chief Richard Silva said that law enforcement agencies in Southern New England are taking multiple measures to prevent and respond to school gun violence, but the police haven’t been sharing all the specifics, for a very good reason.
“We are constantly working to identify needs and talk on a regular if not daily basis with our school officials and stakeholders,” Silva said. “In many cases, we can’t discuss aspects of response or prevention because we don’t want to alert those would use the information to plan an attack.”
Everytown for Gun Safety, a national advocacy group, said there have been 19 instances of a firearm being shot within a school zone during the first two months of 2018, including the Parkland, Fla., massacre on Feb. 14 that left 17 dead. Seven of the shootings occurred during school hours, and five resulted in injuries or deaths.
These incidents, Parkland especially, have provoked outrage across the country and put a spotlight on school security.
Locally, from Stonington to Richmond, the police are involved in partnerships, regional planning and incident preparation to ensure school safety. For those in law enforcement, a shift in philosophy followed the Columbine High School massacre in April 1999.
The shooting shocked the nation, Silva said, and departments across the country re-evaluated and adjusted their practices, leading to closer teamwork among schools, emergency responders and other stakeholders in the community. “We work regularly with fire and medical teams, and meet with the school department on a regular basis,” Silva said.
Silva and Stonington Police Capt. Todd Olson said their departments have met with local school officials after nearly every shooting incident nationwide over the past two years. The meetings allow officials to review and address possible weaknesses in school protection.
The officers said that the content of these discussions is shared on a “need to know” basis.
Elwood M. Johnson Jr., the Richmond police chief, Chief David Palmer in Hopkinton, and Chief Jeffrey Allen in Charlestown, said their departments, too, regularly work together on training and maintain communication with the Rhode Island State Police, which has a barracks in Hope Valley. Their departments also cooperate with the Chariho Regional School District, which has schools in all three towns.
“We are fortunate to have a great working relationship with our border agencies and with our partners in the school district,” Johnson said. “The safety of all students and staff is a paramount concern to us on a daily basis, but it is underscored when a school shooting occurs elsewhere in our country.”
Youth-specific officers have also been assigned to the schools, and these personnel are seen as a possible deterrent force.
Westerly High School has a dedicated school resource officer, Frank Brancato, and Silva said the police and the school department are working to fill a similar dedicated position at the middle school. The position has been vacant since Officer Kristen Kyhos was injured in December 2016.
Chariho High School has a dedicated SRO in Richmond Officer Anthony Zoglio. In Stonington, Youth Officer Thomas Paige works directly with students and school administrators while also serving as the town’s D.A.R.E. officer. Paige works with all schools in the district, Olson said.
Silva and Johnson said these officers serve in a crucial communications role between the police department and the sudents, faculty and parents. Johnson said he strongly encourages interaction between students and SROs, noting that even bringing minor concerns to their attention can help prevent problems down the road.
“Students should be encouraged to say something if they know something regarding threats to school safety, or the well-being of a fellow student or other person who they suspect is harboring harmful thoughts towards others,” Johnson said.
All patrol officers are also part of the team, Allen said. In Charlestown, the officers check on schools regularly, a minimum of at least twice per day during school hours, and will make efforts daily to be present during start time and dismissal.
Similar policies are in place in other communities, the chiefs explained. Officers are also encouraged to sit with their cruiser at the town’s schools when they have paperwork or other administrative responsibilities to complete.
In Stonington, Olson said the department has a full-time patrol, in addition to Paige’s efforts, and an officer stops by every school at least twice a day. The timing of these visits is varied day-to-day as a preventive measure.
At any point, Silva said, the departments will also adjust their routines to enhance the presence and deterrence.
The hope throughout the region is that the partnerships and prevention efforts will help stop an attack before it occurs. But all five chiefs said they knew that recent events only serve to demonstrate that attacks on schools can potentially happen anywhere.
In that case, each department is ready to respond.
Westerly, Chariho and Stonington have each held live shooter training exercises in partnership with the high schools within the past two years. Police at all five local departments said they are transitioning to make such training a regular part of their officers’ annual education. Specific details are not released to the public.
The goal is that each department will be ready to respond in the event of a mass casualty situation, the chiefs said.
School walk-throughs are important, and the departments are making them a required part of any new officer’s field training program.
In Stonington, Olson said that custodians give the officers guided tours, going through every nook and crevice at each school and noting every closet, hiding place and possible escape route. They look at the roof and any other less-trafficked areas that could come into play in an emergency.
The goal, Olson said, is simply to have officers ready to respond no matter what the situation is. Without support and involvement of the entire community, the department would not be able to have such in-depth preparation, he said.
“This topic, student safety, is a collaborative effort all around and isn’t just about police,” Olson said. “We play a crucial role, but everyone needs to be on the same page, whether it’s police, fire, medical personnel or the schools themselves. We all need to be on the same page to provide the most efficient and effective services possible and assure the safety of all town residents.”