Schools review safety protocols in wake of tragedy

BRANDON — Like the rest of the nation, Rutland Northeast Supervisory Union Superintendent John Castle is still reeling from news of the unthinkable school shooting in Newtown, Conn., last Friday that killed 26, including 20 first-graders.
“This is one of those things that shakes you to the core,” Castle said of the massacre, where six adults including the school’s principal were also killed. “It’s your worst nightmare as an educator.”
It’s the tender age of so many of the victims in the deadly Sandy Hook elementary school shooting on Dec. 15 that has stunned Americans and the rest of the world, leaving more questions than answers and fueling debate on gun control. What has come to light are stories of profound courage on the part of teachers at the school, whose quick thinking prevented the deaths of even more students. Two of those teachers lost their lives in the process. As students, teachers and administrators returned to schools across the area Monday, many, including Castle, have a renewed commitment to school safety.
Every school in Rutland Northeast has emergency plans based on best practices developed by the Department of Education in the last decade, from fire and evacuation drills to lockdown procedures. Every teacher and administrator attends mandatory training for school safety and emergency crisis management, which Castle said happens every two years.
“The teachers are quite well-versed in those protocols,” Castle said. “We do practice those things and I feel pretty comfortable and confident that the right level of communication is out there … but there is always room for more.”
He added that RNeSU is due for another training this year.
“In light of what has happened, I am recommending that we move on this year’s training a little more quickly,” the superintendent said. “Certainly this tragedy gives us pause and the opportunity to reflect on our emergency preparation to the best of our ability.”
Sadly, it took the 1999 Columbine High School shooting in Colorado to heighten the need for increased school security across the country and here in Vermont. At Columbine, two students entered the school with an arsenal of weapons and killed 12 students and a teacher before committing suicide. Twenty-one other students were injured. It was the worst school shooting in the country’s history, until last Friday’s tragedy in Connecticut.
“It was unthinkable before Columbine,” Castle said of school shootings. “It was never to that extent, the number of people killed, and (Sandy Hook) obviously exceeds that. It’s unimaginable that this would happen at an elementary school.”
But short of armed guards and a gated campus, there is little that can be done to stop someone who intends to enter a school and do harm. Sandy Hook School had an updated security system where visitors had to be buzzed in, but the shooter, Adam Lanza, 20, merely shot out a window and entered the building. He was found dead inside the school of an apparent suicide.
Castle said there is also the struggle to keep a public school just that, public, yet secure.
“It’s always this balance between being a welcoming school community and having the necessary security,” he said.
Brandon Police Chief Chris Brickell said he has ongoing communication with both OV Principal Jim Avery and Neshobe Principal Judi Pulsifer about their respective school emergency plans. He has also spoken with the department’s school resource officer, Anne Bandy, who is on duty daily at OV, since Friday’s tragedy in Connecticut.
“We have looked at what Anne’s response is to a given situation,” Brickell said. “There are some additional things we can do to enhance her ability at the school.”
The police chief said exterior doors will be checked in a lockdown situation as well as interior doors to be sure they are locked.
But Brickell agreed that law enforcement should not play a role in the day-to-day security of a school.
“It’s difficult from their perspective because they have to keep the school open to the community,” he said. “And now they have to look at security as an issue and that doesn’t have anything to do with education, but you don’t want to have to rely on law enforcement for security in a community building.”
Castle said he heard about the shooting at Sandy Hook School at about 2:30 p.m. on Friday, and within 24 hours had spoken to all seven principals in the district: Neshobe, Otter Valley Union High, Leicester Elementary, Whiting Elementary, Sudbury Country, Lothrop Elementary, and Barstow Elementary schools.
They discussed how to proceed when students came back to school on Monday and developed a plan. Principals would touch base with staff before the school day began to check in and establish the tone for the day. Administrators were more visible in the event they were needed by staff and/or students. Castle said each school’s highest priority all this week and in the coming days is that the students feel safe.
“It’s important that we validate the feelings of those students who are stressed or upset,” he said. “A sense of normalcy is what we’re striving for. Some students will have seen and heard the news from Connecticut, some won’t. Teachers need to be able to communicate and validate students’ concerns, to let them know that they’re safe and that their school is safe.”
School psychologists are also on hand to support both students and staff members alike.
“I don’t want to underestimate that this will cause stress for many staff members,” Castle said.
Letters have also gone out to parents and RNeSU staff members outlining school safety measures and the plan to address student and staff concerns and fears.
While the investigation into a motive behind the Sandy Hook massacre will take weeks, by all accounts Adam Lanza was extremely bright but reclusive and socially inept. The issue has stirred debate over how those with mental illness or emotional issues are treated in this country, and heightened the need for action when the warning signs of a serious issue come to light.
Castle said that staff members are trained to identify any student who may have violent tendencies or issues with mental illness. He said the district works in tandem with Rutland County Mental Health to serve those students.
“In terms of deterrents in the school community, that’s the best answer for us,” Castle said. “To identify and support students who may be struggling with mental health issues.”
He added that the district has increased its level of mental health services in recent years to meet the needs of students.
“We have two clinicians at OV,” he said. “We have seen an increase in student trauma. We have brought people into the building to work with students and families who are struggling with issues.”
Castle said the need for emotional and mental health support is particularly important for students moving out of high school and into the mainstream, often a transition that is overlooked.
“Security is important,” Castle said, “but supporting the mental health of students, especially as they transition into adulthood, that’s where as a society we should be doing everything we can.”
As the nation continues to grieve for the young victims of the Sandy Hook shooting, as well as for the six staff members who were killed, area parents, teachers and students are trying to comprehend this senseless, tragic act. Castle said he and his administrators would continue to assess school safety procedures and do their best to support students.
“Certainly I feel we’ve taken the right procedures and precautions to ensure a safe environment for students, and we will continue to revisit that,” Castle said. “You certainly hope it doesn’t happen in your community, but each time it does, it hits a little closer to home.”

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