School officials hold emergency meeting in wake of shootings
The specter of school violence came home to New England last week. Newtown, Conn., lies only 126 miles west of Jamestown, and as the horrific news emerged last Friday, thoughts turned to the safety of Jamestown’s children as they attend the island’s two public schools.
Newtown is a small, idyllic town, similar in many ways to Jamestown. It’s a place where people move so that their kids will be able to get a quality education. When a gunman walked into the elementary school there and murdered 20 children, along with six adults, the old idea of “It can’t happen here” went out the window.
School Superintendent Marcia Lukon has primary responsibility for everything that goes on in Jamestown’s schools, including security concerns. In response to Friday’s events, she called an emergency meeting with her crisis management team for Saturday. The team includes all of the administrators and counselors, as well as the nurse and personnel responsible for student services.
“The team met for over two hours,” Lukon said. “We talked through the whole scenario, and we decided on which guidelines we would send out to parents.”
A letter was composed and sent to all parents and school staff. The message was delivered by email as well as the telephone contact system that is in place. The memo outlined what the school staff would do when students arrived on Monday morning, and told parents that there would be extra counselors in place if needed.
“We brought in all of our staff to have them available on Monday,” Lukon said. “We were very well prepared.”
For obvious reasons, Lukon did not want to discuss the specifics of the security that is in place at Lawn and Melrose schools. She did confirm that there is a crisis management plan for the schools. The plan includes lockdowns and lockouts. Lockouts occur when something threatening has taken place outside of the school buildings.
“The staff is very familiar with the plan and when we use it, but we don’t publish that information,” Lukon said.
The superintendent said that reporters at the scene of the Newtown tragedy seemed surprised that students had huddled in corners. According to Lukon, that is part of a lockdown.
“You want to get kids away from windows and doors and everything that people can shoot through,” said Lukon, adding that the goal is for the threat not to spot the children in the classroom.
You can never have a perfect plan, according to Lukon. There are often elements that are overlooked. She said that strategy has to be reconsidered from time to time, and changes have to be made. The Jamestown plan is reviewed every year. Improvements are put in place based on new technologies and other considerations.
On Monday morning, Lukon and her administrators held the first in what will be a series of ongoing meetings with Police Chief Ed Mello. The purpose of the meeting was to review security procedures in the wake of the Newtown tragedy, and ensure that everything possible is being done to protect Jamestown students.
According to Mello, all police officers in Rhode Island receive specialized training for dealing with an active shooter incident. In addition to the training, the offi cers have been through exercises in the last 12 months.
“I met with the leadership of the school system to discuss their existing plan,” Mello said. “I discussed our plan, to make sure that they’re aware of that, and we discussed how we can improve those plans going forward. We plan to meet on a regular basis over the next several months to work at that.”
Mello said both the police and school plans would be assessed, and that the infrastructure of both Lawn and Melrose schools would be reviewed.
“I am more than willing to work with the school to make recommendations, whether it’s a revision to the plan or changes to the infrastructure to provide for better security there,” said Mello.
Lukon said that the current procedures that are in place include fire drills, which have been practiced for many years, as well as lockdown drills. Mandatory lockdown drills were put in place by the state of Rhode Island in the wake of the Columbine shootings 14 years ago. Going forward, Lukon said that the police will be on site for future lockdown drills so that they can observe and see if the procedures can be improved.
“The events have heightened everybody’s awareness of how important security is in a town like Jamestown because this community is so much like Newtown,” Lukon said. “We need to really think about what we’re doing and increase the urgency of the procedures that we have in place. It’s absolutely essential that everybody knows what they have to do.”
Staff members were informed that personnel would be available to meet with them on Monday morning at 7:15 in case they had any questions about how to handle things that might come up during the day. Several teachers did arrive early with questions.
Lukon said that the message she wants parents to get is that Jamestown’s schools are safe. There was a decision made not to have an open discussion – such as an assembly – with the students.
“We’re not going to bring this up,” Lukon said. “However, if students have questions, we’re going to answer them using the guidelines we created and sent to parents.”
Although she admitted that the staff was feeling a bit apprehensive about what might happen on Monday in terms of questions from the students and resources on hand, it turned out to be a normal school day once students arrived.
“There were minimal questions from kids, business as usual,” Lukon said. “We didn’t see kids upset. It was just like any other school day. It was such a pleasant surprise. We were so anxious about the children coming in upset, and it didn’t happen. We saw more anxiety from the parents than we did from the kids.”