School communities beef up security in wake of Connecticut tragedy
Schools in the Midcoast region are responding to the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut in a variety of ways, with some offering counseling to students and others heightening security at all buildings since the incident.
The shootings at the Newtown, Conn. school resulted in the death of 20 children and six adults, and as news of the tragedy swept the nation, administrators in Regional School Unit 20 were already taking action to protect students in Belfast area schools.
Friday, Dec. 14, Assistant Superintendent John McDonald issued a notice to all parents about measures the district took in response to the shootings.
"Today, as a precautionary measure, I directed all of the schools in RSU 20 to maintain a heightened state of security and go into 'lock-out' mode in light of the tragic shootings in Connecticut," stated McDonald in the note. "Schools are locking exterior doors and monitoring persons entering and exiting the buildings. We believe that there are no immediate threats to our facilities, however, I feel it prudent to exercise caution at this time. The safety of your children is always our primary concern. Our thoughts and prayers are with the families affected by this tragedy."
Tuesday morning, Dec. 17, visitors to Searsport District High School were met with a note on the door instructing them to buzz the front office so school staff would be aware of their presence before they would be admitted into the building.
In October, the RSU 20 Board of Directors approved a new, 500-page crisis action plan that covers a variety of emergency situations, everything from natural disasters to the presence of an armed person in a school building.
The latter scenario is something RSU 20 is all too familiar with due to the events of Oct. 31, 2008, when Randall Hofland entered Stockton Springs Elementary School with a gun and took 11 fifth graders hostage before police were able to detain him.
Following a month-long trial in January 2011, a jury found Hofland guilty on 39 of 40 charges he faced in connection with the incident. He is currently serving a 35-year sentence at the Maine State Prison in Warren.
At the October meeting, RSU 20 Director Denise Dakin of Stockton Springs, whose child attended Stockton Springs Elementary at the time of the incident, remembered the difficulties her own family faced as a result of it and complimented McDonald on the completeness of the action plan.
"Compared to what was in place, we've done a 360," said Dakin. "We were never really prepared for this man to come into the school with a gun."
Lincolnville Police Chief Ron Young was one of the many local officers who responded to the Stockton Springs school when Hofland appeared there more than four years ago. He recalled hearing the report on his police radio while filling his car with gas in Belfast and said he responded in civilian clothes. He noted he and other members of local law enforcement agencies were leaving the scene with the suspect in custody by the time state police tactical teams arrived, raising the question about logistics of emergency response in a state as large — and largely rural — as Maine.
"A lot of the time it takes [law enforcement] minutes to respond to something that takes just seconds," Young said.
Young said directly following the 2008 incident in Stockton Springs, he spoke with Lincolnville Central School Principal Paul Russo, who confirmed at that time that there is a plan in place in the event of school violence at Lincolnville Central School.
The Newtown tragedy hits a particular nerve with Young, who was a SWAT team member in San Diego for more than a decade prior to moving to Maine. In March 2001, his team responded to two "active shooter" incidents — at Santana Hills High School and Granite Hills High School — he said. The pair of school shootings occurred less than three weeks, and less than five miles, apart.
Young stressed the importance of officer training, noting he attends active shooter training programs whenever he can so he can keep his skills sharp in case he ever encounters such a situation.
Young said his immediate response after hearing about the Newtown shootings was to go to Lincolnville Central School. He said he plans to continue cultivating an active presence at the school, and not just from inside the confines of his cruiser.
"I want to be the first thing students see when they get off the bus and the last thing they see when they leave," he said. "I plan to spend a lot of time there."
RSU 3 Superintendent Heather Perry said the district isn’t making any significant changes to its safety protocols following the shootings. Perry said the district has been working on revising the emergency plans for the schools for the past year and she feels the schools are in “pretty good shape.”
When news broke about the mass shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School, Perry said the district was aware of what was happening, but chose not to lock down the schools because she didn’t feel there was a pressing need to do so at the time.
“I did send an alert message to parents and staff reminding them of our procedures,” Perry said.
A few parents also contacted Perry with questions regarding why the schools don’t require visitors to have to buzz in to gain entry and why metal detectors aren’t installed. Perry said having an up-to-date plan and well-trained staff are just as effective as any other measures the district could implement.
Over the weekend, Perry said she contacted staff to remind them of the policies in place for an emergency situation.
Perry also noted that shy of locking down the schools like a prison, there is only so much that can be done.
School Board Chairman Phil Shibles said board members are always looking at ways to improve the policies in place at the schools. However, he said because of the time and effort that has been put into keeping the policies current, he is satisfied with the way things are now.
“I think we’re ahead of the curve,” Shibles said in terms of the district-wide safety policies.
Although he hadn’t heard any concerns from parents or board members, Shibles said he doesn’t think that means there aren’t concerns in the community.
As an added precaution, Perry said the district made sure a school resource officer was available this week, as the regular officer was scheduled to be gone for surgery. In addition, counselors were made available for students and family members who needed to talk about the shootings.
Perry said teachers were also allowed to discuss the shootings in the classroom if students expressed an interest in discussing the incident.