Discussions about how to keep schools safer amidst an environment of increasing anxiety over gun violence within the United States stretched from a small gathering of students, administrators and police officers at Pilgrim High School on Tuesday afternoon to a larger gathering of emergency brass and community members at the Tuesday evening meeting of the Warwick School Committee.
The dialogue since the Parkland, Fla. shooting, which killed 17 students on Valentine’s Day, has been continuous, and focuses on the preparation tactics employed by the school district and response tactics utilized by emergency personnel in the event of an unthinkable but all too real scenario unfolding in Warwick.
“The City of Warwick has taken a true team approach to school safety and security,” said Superintendent Philip Thornton at the onset of the School Committee meeting. “We [school administration and emergency personnel] keep meeting to refine and review our safety plans. It’s this partnership that allows us to look at where we are with the various aspects of school safety and move forward as a team to make our schools as safe as we can for our students and staff.”
Thornton brought up various elements of security and their status within the schools, beginning with emphasizing the importance of ensuring the approximately 560 exterior doors located at the district’s 22 schools are functioning and locking properly. He also said that exterior doors would begin to be marked with large numerical and alphabetical stickers this spring to make it easier for emergency responders to identify their points of entrance and egress.
Interior doors, Thornton said, utilize a variety of different locks due to several different replacement periods occurring throughout the years. He said that in the short term, it will be made certain that staff have keys to these interior doors and, long-term, the district will be seeking to replace interior door systems with an ADA-compliant, more uniform system like that has been installed at Warwick Veterans Junior High. About $713,000 has been carved out of a proposed bond issue to address these interior doors throughout the district.
Thornton then said that increasing the numbers of cameras in school has become more important, and that Pilgrim High has seen an increase from 14 cameras to over 80 all throughout the interior and exterior of the schools. Similarly, walkie-talkies used by in-school administrators have increased – each smaller school has at least four while the larger schools have many more.
Those two elements play a most important role in the next, perhaps most crucial element of Warwick’s preparation for a crisis event – the Mutual Link system.
Warwick is the only municipality in Rhode Island to utilize Mutual Link, an interconnected communications network that can link between emergency first responders and the schools. It is also connected to the malls and to the Kent County Hospital.
The system can be activated by a computer that is hooked up to the system in the main office of each school and the administrative building at Gorton – but the important thing to note is that the system can also be activated remotely by any teacher or school staff member via a free phone application called Rave. The system isn’t just used for a potential active shooter, it can be activated for fires and other hazards as well.
Once activated, the system opens up the video cameras and walkie-talkie communications to fire and police personnel, giving them real-time information on what is happening within the schools and allowing them to better respond to crises.
“It gives us better intelligence,” said Major Brad Connor of the Warwick Police Department, who attended the school committee meeting. “When that person is on the phone – whether it’s on their cell phone or calling from the office – the more intelligence they can give us [such as] the location of the threat, the suspect’s identification or at least a description, what type of weapons they're using and where they’re headed. All that information can be given to us immediately and our dispatchers can get it to the responding officers… The more information our first responding officers can get, the quicker they can get to that problem and solve it.”
School committee member David Testa brought up the notion of arming teachers. While not outright speaking out against the notion, he led Major Connor into an answer that indicated the problems such a tactic might create during an active shooting situation.
“Some of our officers are dressed like I am dressed [in full uniform], some are dressed in suits and some of them are dressed in jeans and t-shirts at any given time,” Connor said. “These are your first responders. These are the people that are going to be coming through the door to protect you. If people are holding guns that aren’t trained in target identification, that becomes a threat to us.”
While Warwick is perhaps ahead of the curve in preparing physically for a worst case scenario, Colonel Stephen McCartney, chief of the Warwick Police Department, summed up how preparation only means so much once a crisis starts to unfold.
“I have plenty of experience in combat – I was in two wars – I can tell you that when situations like this happen, chaos prevails,” he said. “When you have chaos like a situation like this is going to present in schools, you need to have clearheaded, clear-thinking people who can communicate clearly what is happening in the schools.”
McCartney said that having a strong communication plan for every school, and a clearly-guided plan at the district level for how to handle such crises was paramount, and that there should be people who are dedicated as point communications officers to handle communications during these events. Setting up a training plan, McCartney said, would then be the next step.
“And what you have to learn how to do – whether you get psychologists involved in this or you get a range of different people involved – there’s nothing more than being able to train to it,” he said.
Major Connor said in an earlier answer to a question that, unfortunately, nobody should be unprepared for an active shooting event, or any type of emergency for that matter.
“It shouldn’t be a surprise if it happens. It should be ingrained in your staff and your students that this is a potential situation,” Connor said. “We certainly don’t want to worry about it, but we need to keep bringing up the topic.”
In terms of tangible training, Major Connor spoke of increasing educational efforts within the schools, and this is undertaken by school resource officers (SROs), and there is a dedicated SRO at each of the district’s four secondary schools.
The major educational program taught in Warwick is “Run, Hide, Fight,” which instructs students and staff to either escape a dangerous situation, hide and barricade themselves if escaping isn’t possible and, as a last resort, physically defending themselves if they encounter an individual who clearly intends to do them harm.
“We’ve shifted from only a couple officers who have the knowledge and do the training, to all of our SROs so that they have a foothold in the schools themselves,” Connor said. “They work daily with your faculty and they see the students.”
While administrators and emergency personnel talked big picture about the district, student members of the Pilgrim Political Involvement Club at Pilgrim High School took the initiative to engage in their own dialogue, and invited school administrators and police officers into the meeting to provide their professional expertise.
“We protect our sports venues, we protect our concerts, we protect our politicians, we protect our celebrities – it’s time to protect our students too,” said Zachary Lafontaine, club president and founder.
Students discussed possible areas of concern at Pilgrim, primarily a rear entrance to the building that allows entrance to students parking in the back parking lot (the only lot students may park in). They brought up having an administrator watch the door during the morning hours, and the possibility of installing a camera and locking system for that door similar to the one at the main entrance.
Students and administrators at the meeting urged the importance of changing the culture among the student body – to stop opening the door for strangers or people who knock at the doors, and report things such as a door that is unlocked or isn’t functioning. Similarly, students should be encouraged to report suspicious activity or a fellow student who appears to be capable of harming others or headed in a dark direction.
“Students need to be accountable too. You should be policing each other just as much,” said assistant principal Pamela Bernardi. “That’s not snitching, that’s safety.”
Captain Joseph Hopkins of the Warwick Police Department emphasized that fact as well. Hopkins said that students and faculty need to be comfortable reporting any incident, whether it happens online or in person, which alarms them – such as an incident the police recently investigated involving a former Toll Gate student who posted a picture on Facebook pointing a gun with a threatening message underneath.
He also said that more teachers need to be aware of and be ready to utilize the aforementioned Rave app, as only about 20 percent of teachers in Warwick have access to it currently.
“It’s your school, so it’s your security,” he said. “There’s no excuse for a door that doesn’t lock. There’s no excuse for a door that can be wedged open. You need to demand your security. You need to call upon students to be aware and hold the school district accountable for things that aren’t safe.”