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School safety becomes focus in wake of tragedy
Sun Rise photo by Meg Fraser
Patrolman Matthew Winsor checks in on Ferri Middle School yesterday afternoon. Ferri also has a full-time School Resource Officer, Chuck Psilopoulos, and the district is preparing to replace outgoing Johnston High School SRO James Seymore. In the wake of the Sandy Hook shootings, Superintendent Dr. Bernard Di Lullo sent a message out to parents about the safety precautions currently in place across the district, including locked doors, buzzers and intercoms, and a police presence.

On Friday afternoon, Johnston parents breathed a collective sigh of relief when the school bus pulled up and their children hopped out. On Monday morning, the anxiety and fear returned. As the town and the nation mourn the tragic deaths of 20 children and six adults, the same question emerges: are my children safe?

On the Sun Rise Facebook page, parents have continued to share their feelings since Friday.

“I believe we have all become very complacent … more can always be done,” posted Kristen Rothman Brien.

Johnston residents shared ideas on how they would like the district to handle security, ranging from additional emergency training for educators to metal detectors. Most often, the suggestion has focused on an increased police presence in schools.

“Just having one police officer present in the school will be the best deterrent. It is no different than a criminal choosing who to mug, or which house to break in to. If they know you have a security system, they move on,” said Raffi Derderian, who owns the Derderian Academy of Martial Arts on Atwood Avenue.

Johnston Deputy Police Chief David DeCesare assures residents that police are present at area schools. Officer Chuck Psilopoulos is the School Resource Officer at Ferri Middle School. His office is based inside the school, and his cruiser can be seen stationed outside of Ferri.

Johnston High School is in a state of transition for its SRO. Longtime SRO James Seymore was recently promoted to detective, and the department is in the process of assigning a new officer to the school.

“In the meantime, we’ve been putting patrols in front of the school. The SRO at the middle school and the high school have been a mainstay over the years,” DeCesare said.

The town’s four elementary schools do not have a permanent officer assigned there, though the Deputy Chief says the schools are all part of regular routine checks.

“Our regular patrolmen stop in at the local elementary schools and they drive by frequently,” he said.

Some parents aren’t convinced that is enough. Lisa Cennamo Tvenstrup said that having an SRO at the high school has always provided “an additional sense of security,” and that feeling could extend to other schools if the SRO program is expanded.

“I think every school should have a police presence,” said Larry Dureault Jr.

DeCesare added that the department specifically keeps their school officers in full uniform. While some districts have those SROs in plainclothes, Johnston officers are in full uniform with their duty weapon and a police cruiser.

Soon, schools will have quick access to police through a system that is currently being installed.

“We are in the process of installing panic buttons in each building that would immediately contact the police and alarm company,” said Superintendent Dr. Bernard Di Lullo, who added that the process began before Friday’s shooting.

The district is also considering the purchase of mobile panic buttons to add to that system.

Overall, the superintendent believes that Johnston schools are safe, and he said the district is committed to keeping them as safe as possible.

“We have cameras at our entry doors and all doors are kept locked, including central office,” he said.

With doors locked, guests should be buzzed in by the front office and then must sign in there. In the ongoing discussion on the Sun Rise Facebook page, one parent said that “anyone can be buzzed in,” and it was suggested that someone be near the door to check identification for any visitor.

Rhode Island schools are required to conduct at least two lockdown drills each year, a policy that Di Lullo says the district conforms to. He sent out a message to parents and staff on Friday that detailed the district’s security measures currently in place.

“We put out an alert on Friday evening and I reiterated what we do in terms of safety and security in our buildings,” he said.

The message also informed parents that social workers and psychologists would be available to counsel any students or staff members who wanted to talk about the Sandy Hook incident. School Committee member Joseph Rotella called the teachers and principal of Sandy Hook, many of whom confronted killer Adam Lanza to protect students, “true heroes.”

While Di Lullo is pleased with precautions in place, he said the experience does remind educators to stay vigilant and look for other ways to protect students.

“We certainly review our procedures pretty regularly, but it opens your eyes in terms of what areas are vulnerable,” he said.

At the start of Tuesday night’s meeting of the Johnston School Committee, committee member Robert LaFazia requested a moment of silence in honor of the Sandy Hook victims, their families and the community affected by the tragedy. Colleague Rotella said the news has shaken him and the town of Johnston, and it will take time to recover.

“It was extremely disturbing. My kids are both in the schools and the first thing that runs through my mind is, if it can happen here, it can happen anywhere,” he said.

As a father of an 8-year-old and 11-year-old, Rotella was devastated by the news.

As a member of the School Committee, though, he hopes his constituents feel safe sending their kids to school. He said elected officials, administrators and the Johnston Police will continue to work together to make Johnston schools safe.

“I think [security] is very good,” he said. “We’re actually going to be meeting with the mayor, the chief of police, the superintendent and we’re going to go over procedures.”


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