Focus on school safety following Florida tragedy

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In light of the recent horrific school shooting that killed 17 students and adults at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., Johnston’s school administrators, police and elected officials are discussing the town’s preparedness for a similar event.

“I think that this is an adult problem that the adults need to figure out, It shouldn’t be burdened on the children. It’s a terrible thought as a parent to think that I could have my child go to high school or college, which is the age of my children, and not come home again,” said Maria Petronio-McAfee, principal of the Graniteville Pre-K School. “I had a hard time the other night when it started because it’s close to home. When you send your child to school it’s assumed it’s a safe place, but nowadays it isn’t anymore, so we need to have policies, procedures and protocols in place.”

Petronio-McAfee said her school practices two lockdowns, two evacuations and 11 fire drills over the course of a year. She said her staff speaks often with students, who range in age from three to five years old, about stranger danger, not opening doors for strangers, and how to keep safe both inside the building and outside in the playground.

“We do the best we can and we’ve taken every possible protocol to keep our children safe. Do I feel like a resource officer is needed in every building at this time? I probably would have to say yes,” said Petronio-McAfee.

Julie-ann Zarrella, Principal at the Early Childhood Center, highlighted security measures at her center including video surveillance, a buzzer to enter the school, locked schoolroom doors, the monitoring of students throughout the school day, the school resource officer stationed at connected Ferri Middle School, and district safety protocols.

“When tragedies happen, it makes you reconsider things. I can only imagine, as a parent, the fear of putting your child on a bus and the fear that you don’t know what’s going to happen,” said Zarrella. “I think it would give parents more peace of mind if there was an additional police presence. I don’t know if that is absolutely necessary, but as far as a parent’s point of view it would probably give them a lot more peace of mind.”

Zarrella added that she trusts the leadership of Superintendent Dr. Bernard DiLullo Jr. “tremendously” and follows precautions set forth by the district, ensuring that her teachers are well versed in safety measures. Petronio-McAfee also offered similar sentiments.

Superintendent sitdown

“These shootings have happened way too many times, and typically what we see every time we hear one of these stories is a common profile of the person that’s assaulting those kids. Typically, it’s a disenfranchised child, it’s a child that’s had some difficulty in their life, not connected to a lot of adults or peers, and I think that’s the crux of the problem,” said DiLullo. “We need to pay attention to those kids we have concerns about.”

The superintendent said that he believes such students live in every district across the country. He feels that students who may be quiet, disassociated and possibly off the radar of faculty and staff may need additional attention.

DiLullo outlined the security measures the district has implemented, which include locked entrances and exits at schools, access granted to buildings only after a buzzer is pressed and admittance granted by school clerks, and visitors must sign in and out of schools. He highlighted a computer system called Raptor, which can check backgrounds of visitors and screen out sex offenders, manage custody issues, coordinate volunteers and help emergency response teams, has been implemented in all schools. Classroom doors are locked while in session, resource officers are stationed at both the middle and high school, and constant practicing of lockdown and other safety drills occurs. In addition, the district practices one active shooter drill per year with the Johnston Police Department.

“I don’t know that I would agree that we need police in all schools. I certainly think that they’re a valuable resource in middle school and high school not only for the safety concerns but also for the relationship of law enforcement and students – that they do connect with kids and that they get to know our kids,” said DiLullo. “I don’t know that a police presence in an elementary school is the wisest choice.”

DiLullo acknowledged that the proximity of Johnston Police Headquarters only moments away from the middle and high school is a benefit for safety. He said that the district’s two resource officers may respond to any school-related incident in town, including at the elementary schools.

While installing metal detectors at the schools has been explored as a possibility, DiLullo said that problems may arise while checking every student each day, which may cause delays.

“I think our resources really need to be focused on those kids who have some significant emotional and social issues. That’s really where we need to start and we need to start that at the elementary level,” said DiLullo, who also reiterated that he believed the schools are safe.

“We really do have to make a concerted effort to identify those high risk students, to be able to track those students and offer them support. Guidance, social work and psychology are not areas we should be cutting at this point. Those are areas that we really need to sure up to respond to those type of kids,” said DiLullo.

While students in Florida and across the country have taken steps to organize school walkouts to draw attention to gun control and school shootings, DiLullo said there may be better ways for local students to express themselves.

“I don’t know that a walkout is an effective means of dealing with a situation like this. I think a more effective means, as we’re seeing with a lot of students in Florida, is direct communication with politicians and people who make the laws and fund the schools,” said DiLullo. “I think that’s a much more effective approach than walking out of school, and I don’t think walking out of school is the answer or a response to what has occurred.”

Mayor’s take

“We have our police there, always, they’re in each district driving around on patrols. I know the school department has a policy of making sure that all the doors are locked and people cannot get into the school unless they are properly identified,” said Mayor Joseph Polisena, adding that he uses the same system as other visitors whenever he visits a school.

Polisena indicated that he wants to look into securing the glass door entrances at schools, along with windows that are nearby to entrances, with shatterproof glass or installing a special mesh material to make them shatterproof. He said that within the next few weeks he’d like to meet with the school department and town police to explore the idea.

“I think if we can do something like that it will give us an extra comfort level, and I think it’s important. Parents should feel safe because we have the resource officers at the high school and middle school, and at the elementary school level we have police right around the corner,” said Polisena. “We have a patrol officer in each district in town and they set up close by to the schools, so they are there.”

Polisena stated that the police department has appropriate plans in place to allow for a quick response to any scenario.

“I feel very, very confident in the principals who run the schools, they all do a good job, they all take their jobs seriously and they are there to protect the safety of our children,” said Polisena.

Chief’s message

“I want to talk about the unique challenges that face the police in properly policing a school environment. We’re always trying to improve school safety; it’s a priority here at the Johnston Police Department,” said Johnston Police Chief Richard S. Tamburini.

Tamburini said that the town has two school resource officers, Officers Brook Ardito and Jeff Cicchitelli, who have more than a decade of experience each, can be found in the schools whenever they are open. He stressed that the department is prepared for active shooter situations, along with a litany of other circumstances that could occur.

“When you take a timeout to prepare for an active shooter, that’s a whole different scenario. That’s when we have a SWAT team and all the men and women of the Johnston Police Department who are trained and are aware of that type of situation and are ready to respond to that situation instantly at any of our schools,” said Tamburini. “It’s a full court press all the time and it’s training, training, training. That’s all we do; we have drills that prepare for an active shooter, preparing for one shooter, one or more shooters, what do we do with the kids, where do we muster the children.”

The chief said that when the department gets a threat or a student has been singled out as having issues, they address the matter immediately. One of the first steps officers take is that the family of the student is approached and if they have any means of carrying out a threat. They ascertain if the student or their family have guns on hand. They also question the family about a student’s online presence and habits.

“When you initially get information on a particular student, that’s where you need to go to, to the family. And I think that’s what’s missing across the country. If you go to a family too late, that’s after the fact and then that’s when all the warning signs are discovered,” said Tamburini.

Tamburini added that the department is always planning for the “worst case scenario.” He said there are three elements that try to teach students in case there is an active shooter situation. First is to escape, second is hiding if escaping is not an option, and third is to fight back. He also said coordination between local authorities is paramount.

He said that police are on patrols in school neighborhoods throughout the day and can respond in a moment’s notice. Compliance checks by officers are conducted regularly. While he said that, if additional officers were available to be stationed at each school that possibility might be explored, such a plan might be cost-prohibitive.

“I think we get more bang for our buck with the officers out there in a patrol car visibly looking at what’s happening in town and policing the town in that manner,” said Tamburini. “The mayor is on top of this big time. He wants us prepared, and it’s overtime money well spent with training.”

Tamburini said that he wants all families who have children in the town’s schools to be assured that the police force is prepared to respond at any time.

“We’re ready. We’re ready for any situation, preparing for any situation. Johnston Police are prepared,” he said.

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