One month after 17 students and adults at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida were killed following a mass shooting, thousands of students from across the country took part in a school walkout on Wednesday to draw attention to gun violence in schools.
But students at Johnston High School were afforded a different opportunity to participate in the day of awareness and advocacy as members of the school department, elected officials and officers from the Johnston Police Department came to the school to meet directly with the students to hear their concerns and provide safety information.
While the officials were there to answer questions, tensions in the student-filled audience were high.
“There are elementary schools across the country that have panic rooms for their students. We’re more exposed to this, why don’t we have a safer place to hide,” said senior Paige Thomas during the forum. “My sister is a freshman, to think that anything could happen to her in this building…she’s not safe here.”
“I thank you officials for coming, but at the end of the day I feel like it’s more of a personal agenda because you guys didn’t want us walking out today, but that’s fine,” added senior John Bonilla. “At the end of the day, we want change, we want answers and the only way we’ll get that change is if you get to the State House and make moves.”
Other students focused on current safety standards and the need for improvement.
“My question is, why is it that, as soon as you walk into the building in the morning, you’re let into the school without being asked who you are or why you are here,” asked senior Fallon Davis.
Tenth grader Olivia Scuncio asked, “Why do we not have better lockdown procedures? Smithfield and North Providence are learning to create chaos in the classroom, why are we not learning that? Why are we staying in classrooms, why are we coming to school every single day and being allowed to sit in the classroom being an easy target?”
Assistant Principal Michael Mancieri, who helped facilitate the two forum sessions, told students that as a result of the Florida incident, “educators have mobilized and expressed their thoughts on school violence and all that it entails.”
“We recognize that it’s a complicated issue that demands answers. We can all agree, I think, that schools should be a place that everyone feels safe,” he said. “Today is an effort to participate and start a conversation what we’re going to do.”
Following a moment of silence for those killed, Mayor Joseph Polisena addressed the students before taking questions. The mayor, an alumnu of the school who graduated in 1972, said he shared and understood the students’ concerns.
“I do share your concerns about safety. Being here at Johnston High School, or even outside this building, don’t think that for one minute that I along with your teachers, the ancillary staff along with principal Dennis Morrell and his assistants, take your safety for granted,” he said. “We do not take your safety for granted. We want you to be safe at all times, everyone should be safe.”
Polisena told students that Johnston has the most highly trained and the most dedicated police officers who are also concerned with student safety each and every single day. He offered assurances that, as the mayor, it’s his job to make sure that all are safe when entering a school building and that student health, safety and well-being come first.
“Your concern when entering into the building in the morning should be one thing and one thing only, getting the best education from the most talented, hard-working and dedicated teachers, and of course enjoying yourself and enjoying your high school years,” he said. “You need to know that the school administration, my office and the Johnston Police always have your safety in mind each and every day.”
The mayor said that he would work with the school committee, superintendent, police, outside experts and principals from other districts to continue to work on planning. He asked students to be cognizant and diligent in keeping their eyes and ears open at all times for any unusual anomaly and the need to report it.
“As you know, there was an incident a couple of weeks ago by a few individuals at the high school,” said Polisena about a lockdown in which three students were allegedly heard discussing a gun and have since been suspended. “I don’t know who the person was that reported it, but I want to thank you very, very much no matter who you are. You heard something and you reported it, that’s important. Whoever you are, you are truly brave and you are what a Johnston High School student is made of – courage, compassion, concern for others – and you’re a role model.”
Both Vice Principal Mancieri and Superintendent Dr. Bernard DiLullo acknowledged issues about students entering school buildings along with the logistics of getting 900 high school students in the building.
“We are having a conversation about entering the building. What you should all know that we struggle with is that we have a job to do. Our first job is to make sure that we are educating you,” said Mancieri. “So, the very first thing in the morning the doors are open so you can come in. Once the day starts, those doors get locked and doors are locked around the building.”
Superintendent DiLullo also informed students about lockdown procedures and possible changes to those policies.
“As you know, over the years, we’ve practiced lockdown procedures in the classrooms and typically the lockdown procedures are that you get away from any open areas so no one can see who is in the classroom; you’re quiet and in one place,” he said. “However, what history now has shown us is maybe that’s not the best approach. Maybe what we need to do is reexamine that and reexamine what else can we do to be safe in the school.”
DiLullo stated that he was proud of the students during the forum and that they’ve raised good questions around issues they are facing.
“One of the problems is, public schools were not built to be fortresses, now we have to work around those designs to make sure our students are always safe. Our schools are not prisons,” he said.
Johnston Police Chief Richard S. Tamborini and Deputy Chief Joseph Razza were also both on hand to speak with students and address the seriousness of the issues presented.
“These kids are scared, they’re very passionate, you can tell. Let us come up with some good ideas; we’re facing some unique challenges here. Every situation is different and there’s no cookie cutter solution,” said the chief. “But we’re minutes away, we’re right around the corner. We’re here to protect these kids, but they have to work with us, they have to be our eyes and ears if they see something because we’re only as good as the information we get.”
Deputy Chief Razza said that the department is “just 20 seconds” away from both the middle and high schools and that the department is prepared with resource officers, Officers Brook Ardito and Jeff Cicchitelli, at both the middle and high school.
“We actively train at the school. No one knows the schools better than our team,” said Razza. “Every officer knows the layout of the school. They come in the school, they walk the school, they understand the layout of the school. If there’s an active shooter, there will be an immediate response.”
Mayor Polisena went on record telling the students that the town “will find the money to make sure that your schools, including the middle school and elementary schools, are safe.”
“You all have the power to make changes. Everyone in this room has the power to make changes. Soon you will be the generation that will govern our town, our state and our country,” said Polisena. “Don’t make your voices silent, speak with your elected officials and tell them what you think, let them know what you expect from them. We need changes in this country with our laws, and you can have the impetus to make those important changes. Please don’t be silent.”