After the unspeakable events that transpired last Friday morning in Newtown, CT, the country was sent into a state of despair. Yet, at the same time, local leaders and parents of school-aged children across the country also focused in on what could be done to prevent such a tragedy in their own communities – and in many cases, what is already being done.
Chelsea was no different.
School Superintendent Mary Bourque said school safety in Chelsea underwent a huge transformation after the Columbine school shootings many years ago. That was the event that changed everything, Bourque said, and something that made drills and procedures more common.
“In the early years of my career, it was presumed educators would know what to do in a crisis,” she said. “Columbine changed all that for us. That’s when we started all our procedures – safety drills, stand in place drills and lock-down procedures. Here in Chelsea, there was a time when we had a gas leak in the street at the Clark School and everyone had to be evacuated using these procedures. We make them standard routine and practice them – our students, educators and staff – and that gives us the ability to respond in – God forbid – a crisis.”
She also indicated teachers in Newtown had followed those same procedures and probably saved untold numbers of lives.
“In Connecticut, you saw the teachers and principals know what to do – to get kids into the bathroom and to take the right safety precations,” she said. “They knew what to do and it saved lives. It didn’t save all the lives we would have liked, but we’ll never know how many kids were saved due to them carrying out the right safety procedures.”
She also said that Chelsea’s schools are far ahead of many school districts in that they are locked at all times, and everyone has to be buzzed in. Additionally, every school has only one entry point, and security personnel are there to greet every visitor at the entrance.
She said most schools have two security officers, though Chelsea High has five and the Williams School has four.
Chelsea Police Chief Brian Kyes said his department has partnered with the School Department for years. One example is that the department provides two School Resource Officers, one at the high school and one rotating through the middle schools. However, he said there is a noticeable police presence every day at every school.
“One of the questions is whether there is a police officer in every school,” he said. “The answer, unfortunately, is no. There is a police presence though at the schools every day. We do a school post every day for traffic purposes, but also to be visible while we’re there. Sometimes there are situations and altercations that could escalate.”
Additionally, he said most officers are given a walk through of the schools so that they know the layout and terminology at a school they might have to respond to.
“A lot of officers could be called upon to go to a high-risk situation at one of the schools,” he said. “The high school is a large building and the Burke Complex is huge. We have them take a walking tour so they know the terminology like the ‘East Wing’ or the ‘West Wing’ and they physical layout.”
Unlike Chelsea’s neighbors in Revere and Everett, Kyes said that Chelsea doesn’t deploy a SWAT unit. He said he prefers strengthening the training of front line officers that will be the first to arrive on any possible shooting situation.
“There are a lot of agencies that have SWAT teams, but when you have an active shooter in a school, you have to pool your resources right there,” he said. “There is not time to wait for a response. We want to make sure all our line level personnel are trained on the best possible response.”
He added that they have completed numerous table top drills where they discuss every possible situation and every possible outcome. That kind of flexible training, he believes, is more valuable than doing active drills during school hours – which are done in neighboring communities.
“The more complex and elaborate a plan might be, the less likely it will be implemented correctly when the time comes,” he said. “You want a plan that is fool proof and simple at the same time so it becomes second nature. It becomes second nature by practicing over and over and that’s what we’re going to do.”
In fact, already the schools and the police have begun to sit down and review existing plans for school safety.
“Unfortuntaely, this has reminded us we all have to come to the table and review our policies and procedures,” said Bourque.
Added Kyes, “We’re going to get together and start a dialog to see if everything is strong. I don’t know of any plan developed one, three or five years ago that doesn’t need some change. Everything needs updating.”
As far as the emotional health of the district, Bourque said she sent out a letter on Monday to staff and to students/parents in English and Spanish. She said it was necessary to reassure everyone as they came back to school after processing the horrible events all weekend long.
Most parents, she said, continued with their normal routines, though some did hold their children out of school on Monday.
“As a parent of four and as an educator, Friday’s events sent tremors through all of us,” she said. “Our parents were very trusting in that we would handle this as professionals. We met with our teachers and developed talking points and discussed ways to facilitate discussions about the events. The students – depending on age – were to dictate the type of discussions they would have. We had a couple of parents who decided to keep their kids home on Monday, and we’ve let them know we are here to help them have discussions.”
Now, though, as security is tightened up in all of Chelsea’s buildings, the question becomes how it will be possible to also retain a welcoming atmosphere.
“It’s difficult when we’ve been doing things so well and now where do you look to tighten things up even more,” she said. “The tension then also develops in that you don’t want to turn away parents who want to be involved. There’s a tension between safety and sending a welcoming message from our buildings.”
One message, though, that Bourque said could be sent locally by all is an appreciation for teachers in the district, and the possibilities they face every day when they go to work.
“It shouldn’t take a tragedy to have us remember that our educators – our teachers, administrators and staff – do noble and heroic work day in and day out,” said Bourque. “This is an opportunity to really say ‘Thank You’ to educators that give so much day in and day out to our students and our families.”