The Monday after the Sandy Hook School massacre, Warwick police cruisers were stationed outside each of the city’s 23 schools and a policy of locking the front doors of elementary schools was implemented.
Police continue to visit schools. The locked door policy is in place and the administration is looking to install cameras and electronically operated locks at the doors. Acting Superintendent Richard D’Agostino and Col. Steven McCartney have had discussions about further tightening security at all schools, including school resource officers (now posted at the three senior high schools) at the three junior high schools. Mayor Scott Avedisian says he’s looking to pull together a small group of school and city officials and police to review school security and explore what measures should be implemented in the wake of the shootings. There is no support for armed school guards, as has been suggested by the National Rifle Association.
In the last month, Chief McCartney said his department has responded to two recent shootings; at a mall outside Portland, Ore. on Dec. 12 where three people died and the killing of 20 children and six adults at the Sandy Hook School in Connecticut. Department personnel are reviewing security and response procedures at the Warwick Mall and in Warwick schools.
“That’s a work in progress,” McCartney said about the mall Friday.
As for schools, the chief said officers swing by schools in the mornings and at the end of the school day but “I don’t think you can say we’ll have police officers here every day.”
McCartney and members of the department have visited the schools and met with top administrators, principals and teachers.
“I’m impressed by the level of training, the level of confidence and how they are handling things,” he said.
McCartney has heard suggestions to arm principals and teachers. While no local officials are espousing that, it is present in comments on the social media and in letters like that of Stephen Briggs, appearing in today’s paper. Briggs writes, “Isn’t it time for our elected officials to wake up and start to provide security for our schools?”
And there are those who would tighten gun controls and prohibit assault-type weapons (like the Bushmaster used in Newtown that can fire up to 45 rounds of ammunition a minute) and control the amount of ammunition available for them.
“Let’s face it, the NRA has a level of support,” McCartney said. He acknowledges there has been an increase in gun and ammunition sales since Newtown, but this is largely antidotal, since the department’s role is in conducting criminal background checks on those looking to buy a gun. Neither the state nor the city has a registry of gun owners, which is not allowed, according to the office of the Attorney General. The city and the state do have records on those with permits to carry weapons.
“I can only hope that gun owners are responsible,” McCartney said. Citing tragedies where children have gained access to guns, McCartney stressed the importance of keeping guns locked up and away from children.
D’Agostino said the school department looked to reinforce all its security since the terrorist attacks of 9/11. It was then that the policy of locking doors at elementary schools (with the exception of the front door) was implemented. This required visitors to check in at the school office, sign in and obtain a visitor’s pass. Those doors are now locked and buzzers have been installed, but this requires a principal, clerk or someone else in the school to interrupt what they are doing to open the door. With the installation of cameras and buzzers, the department hopes to give personnel the ability to open doors from within the school.
D’Agostino called the secondary schools the “most vulnerable” because of the configuration of the buildings and number of doors. Steps have been taken; Toll Gate students have been directed to use the “bridges” between the two sections of the school rather than ground level doors. He said key cards are being explored that would allow, for instance at Gorton, teachers and other school personnel to access buildings from parking lots without having to be buzzed in. Pilgrim Principal Marie Cote says monitoring the school’s 37 doors is virtually impossible. When school opens, three doors at different locations are opened to allow 1,500 into the building and then locked a half-hour later. Nonetheless, as Cote has experienced, there is no way of stopping students from opening doors or wedging something in them to keep them open. The school does have cameras, but Cote says watching them would be a waste of time. They are used to “back track” on incidents that have already occurred. As D’Agostino has urged, Cote believes the answer is for staff and teachers to be more vigilant, to question people they don’t recognize and to check that doors are locked.
D’Agostino said there have been discussions about SROs (School Resource Officers) in junior high schools.
When he was appointed chief, McCartney did away with the DARE program in schools, which he said had officers acting as teachers and, in one instance, refusing to intervene in a potentially violent situation. He implemented SROs. The officers are not in the schools as armed guards, although they do carry guns, but to defuse conflict or be there in cases where students act violently. “He knows the kids as well as any teacher,” Cote says of SRO Dennis Amerantes at Pilgrim. “We have our full moon days,” she says, but having an officer in the school has a calming effect. She said Amerantes attends school meetings, to offer a different perspective on what is happening at the school, and serves as mediator. “There’s a lot of mediation and that prevents a lot of potential problems,” Amerantes said.
“Students are very quick to respond to a situation,” said D’Agostino. He notes that students are often under a lot of stress and that schools are required “to work with all students.”
That raises issues of students’ mental condition, medications (and whether they are improperly shared) and the privacy laws. D’Agostino said the department has programs aimed at addressing student behavior and working with parents. He cites the Family Plus Program, started two or three years ago, where parents and school officials meet once a week over an eight-week period. Currently, about 40 parents are enrolled in the program, D’Agostino said.
Whether an SRO could have stopped what happened at Aldrich or identified those students responsible far sooner than it took the department is not known. In that case (a week before Sandy Hook), postings on Facebook that someone had a gun at the school caused the department to spend 18 to 24 hours tracking down who was responsible for the posting and searching the school. The story turned out to be a hoax and no guns were found. Still, parents kept more than 200 students out of school while police tracked down the source. Three students have been charged, in spite of some parental protests, and will be prosecuted.
McCartney says the SROs have served to provide conflict resolution and enhance learning environments at the three high schools.
“They’re doing a tremendous job,” he said, but “their first responsibility is to be cops.”
Where SROs are especially helpful is in determining whether a particular incident should be dealt with by the school administration or whether it rises to police involvement.
Putting SROs in junior high schools is being studied, but McCartney notes the department is already stretched and “you can only stretch a police officer so far.”
Having officers posted at every school would be especially demanding. Armed guards, other than police officers, are another possibility.
“I think having armed guards is a decision of the superintendent,” McCartney said.
As for the school department’s response to the shootings at Sandy Hook, McCartney said of D’Agostino, “I think he’s handled it very responsibly during the entire crisis. I have been engaged in working with him.”
In an email response to how schools should respond to the massacre, Mayor Avedisian proposed the formation of a committee to review school security measures.
“We will continue to have a more visible police presence in and around our schools but I do not think that having armed police officers in every school is the way to go. We have suggested that there be a small review group put together – schools, police, and my office – to coordinate efforts,” he said.