It was wonderful to hear of the success of Westerly School Safety Director Mike Turano and EMA Director Amy Gryzbowski in breaking through the “It can’t happen here” mentality of the past few years and holding a meaningful School Evacuation and Parent Reunification Drill. That they seemed, as experts should be, “in charge” was testimony as to how far the Westerly School District may have come. Police, fire, ambulance, and other first-responders are the authorities on emergency response protocols and practices — not school administration amateurs.
The drill portends a return to the pioneering efforts of then-Westerly High School Principal Jim Murano, Police Chief Steve Baker, Fire Chief Dave Sayles, Westerly Ambulance Corps personnel such as Dawn Smith, and dozens of others who put in place an active-shooter response mechanism two years prior to Columbine. That protocol (“Dr. Bacon” for a generation of students — vetted and approved by the FBI , Secret Service and USMC Embassy Security Cadre) put Westerly in the forefront of towns who were prepared should the worst happen.
Westerly Teachers Association President Chris Sieczkiewiecz rallied the faculties in commitment to the protocols and a truly unified commitment to student safety was put into being. Crucial to the success was Superintendents of Schools Sal Augeri and Tom DiPaola doing what true leaders do — empowering trained and expert subordinates to lead the way and totally supporting their efforts. Former School Committee Chairs Maggie Stewart and Nancy Burns-Fusaro gave total support to all efforts to keep kids safe.
The work of many did not go unnoticed — Westerly Public Schools Safety and Security Protocols were brought to the attention of then-Gov. Carcieri and the Rhode Island Legislature by Sen. Algiere and Rep. Azzinaro — and Westerly was named the Rhode Island State Model for School District Emergency Response and presented statewide. A key cog to that recognition was the Westerly Integrated Social Services Program (WISSP) that under Dr. Sally Mitchell pioneered student access to reporting potential incidents of violence — protocols that are finally seen today as crucial to school safety. The Connecticut State Police used Westerly Public Schools and the town as a training site for troopers assigned to school and campus safety duty. The epoch of recognition was a Federal Senate Commendation and a commendation from still-Secretary of Education Arne Duncan for courageous leadership in advancing school safety.
This past week’s drill is hopefully a return to a tradition of excellence. If the administration trusts in subordinate expertise (please refrain from commenting as to whether Cimalore Field is an ideal evacuation site — read prior protocol, it is obviously not), the students, families and Town of Westerly will return to what all deserve — the best in emergency response preparedness.
The writer is a former vice principal at Westerly High School.