September 16, 2014
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McNamara hopes for a consistent school safety plan

Locked doors, security cameras and armed security guards are just a few of the proposals that have been looked at or implemented since the massacre at Sandy Hook School in neighboring Connecticut.

And, while those measures have their place, Rep. Joseph McNamara hopes to develop consistent protocols as the House Committee on Health, Education and Welfare, which he chairs, looks at school safety and emergency response plans.

McNamara, who recently retired from the Pawtucket School Department, said a part of his concern is that existing response plans were developed a decade ago and don’t take into consideration technological advances made since then.

When those plans were developed, which mandate schools conduct a prescribed number of lockdowns, evacuations and fire drills among other provisions, systems did not have the means to instantly alert parents of developments, nor had social media such as Facebook and Twitter become so prevalent that students with cells phones are posting developments to friends and family as they occur.

“The world is a different place,” McNamara said yesterday prior to the committee meeting where Commissioner of Education Deborah A. Gist, John Desmarais of the Rhode Island Police Chiefs Association and other school and law enforcement officials were expected.

While it sounds elementary, McNamara said we need a consistency of protocols and a standard vocabulary statewide so that responders from other departments know what to expect.

“We need to use a common language,” McNamara said.

McNamara said he hopes to gain feedback from the meeting “to see if we can gain consensus on areas where we can improve without creating an unfunded mandate and develop a consistent policy.”

That sounds good to Mayor Scott Avedisian. Neither he nor the School Committee have waited for a comprehensive and revamped state plan, however.

Avedisian said yesterday he met recently with acting superintendent Richard D’Agostino and other school officials and he favors plans to install cameras and buzzer and keyless entry systems at schools. The cost, which he said is about $300,000, would probably be included as part of a $4.3 million bond for schools for fire code upgrades. The mayor gave his authorization for schools to borrow the funds from the Rhode Island Health and Educational Building Corporation on Wednesday, and it is expected to come before the School Committee shortly. RIHBEC provides low interest bonds for school projects.

Avedisian feels the city is responding appropriately to the issue of school safety. He said that the Police SWAT team trains regularly.

“Each community needs to adopt its own plan. We have a good feel for what needs to be done,” he said.

D’Agostino said the cameras and buzzer and keyless entry systems would first be installed in elementary schools followed by similar systems at secondary schools. He put the total cost of the system at about $600,000. He said that the keyless entry system records who is entering a building as well as the time and may be used at some time as a means of recording staff attendance.

The system has been installed at John Brown Francis School as a test site and is meeting administrative expectations, D’Agostino said.

McNamara sees plans as reaching beyond a threat to a school. While working for Pawtucket schools, McNamara was instrumental in developing “recovery” protocols for situations where a teacher or student dies, suicides and accidents. He said the district has pre-written letters, designated counselors and systems ready, and in place, should they be needed.

On a larger scale, McNamara said he wants to see how districts across the state are prepared to deal with bomb threats, kidnapping and other false or real attacks on schools and students.

“This is a good time to take a thorough look at these,” he said.

But he also wonders how to distinguish accurate information when misinformation can be so easily and rapidly disseminated. In early December, Facebook postings prompted Warwick Police to conduct a lengthy search of Aldrich Junior High School after it was said there was a gun in the school. Police were able to track down the students that perpetrated the hoax and charge them.


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