Threat assessment of Johnston Schools now underway

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Following school shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida last month and another at Great Mills High School in Maryland this week, school, police, fire and elected officials have stepped up their efforts to protect the district’s students and are now conducting a threat analysis of all of the town’s school buildings.

“I had ordered the Police Department to do a threat analysis on all of the schools and to report back to me within 30 days. We had a meeting last Thursday with all of the school principals, along with Bert Oliveira, who is in charge of the security for Citizens Bank and is head of physical security and investigations,” said Mayor Joseph Polisena. “I’ve spoken with the School Committee Chair, Janice Mele, and we’re going to do what it takes to put extra layers of security at our schools.”

Polisena said he’d like to see the district implement new protocols and procedures in place to ensure that both teachers and students are safe. He believes that the threat assessment will identify the weak and strong points at each school, with the expectations to improve upon any deficiencies found. The mayor said all safety options are now on the table and being explored, including creating safe rooms, addressing safety glass concerns, understanding evacuation needs, and more.

“This is a priority,” said Polisena. “We’ve moved this to the front line. I will find the money to do this. It’s more important than anything I’ve done in this town.”

On Monday, a contingent of police and fire officials, including Fire Chief Peter Lamb, Deputy Police Chief Joseph Razza, School Resource Officer Brooke Ardito, Detective James Seymore who is part of the department’s active shooter team, Lt. Matthew J. Benson, and Director of School Facilities David Cournoyer were provided an hour and a half tour of Winsor Hill Elementary to begin the threat assessment. They were led by school Principal Michele Zarcaro.

Zarcaro provided a trove of information to the panel of officials, answering every one of their questions and addressing her safety concerns that have been identified over time by faculty and staff. Each person carried a schematic of the school and took copious amounts of notes about what was discovered.

“We’re going to go to every school and assess what the needs of the principals and staff at each school are,” said Deputy Chief Joseph Razza. “Each school is unique and each has their own issues. We’re looking to determine what would make the schools more secure. Whatever we can do to make the schools more secure, we’re going to come up with a plan of what’s needed and come back with what the committee believes will enhance school safety. We’re on this, and we’re building on what’s already in place.”

While the committee looks to keep the students safe, Fire Chief Lamb was on hand to explain how some security measures may come into conflict with fire safety codes.

“One of my concerns in this venue is, as we make the school tighter, I’m thinking about how we escape. We want to be as secure as we can while still being in compliance with the fire codes,” said Chief Lamb. “They’re looking at it from a security perspective; I’m looking at this as a means of egress. This couldn’t be any better; both sides of the coin are here working in cooperation. We’re going to brainstorm this out.”

At the end of the tour, it was clear that Principal Zarcaro was happy with the results but was concerned about the safety of her students and that the day’s discussion had taken an emotional toll.

“To feel that they’re on board and being that supportive, it feels like a relief,” said Zarcaro. “I’ve surveyed my teachers; I’ve asked them to tell me the problems that they see so instead of ducking and hiding from them we’re facing them head on.”

Zarcaro said she feels more empowered following the walkthrough but she’s scared for her kids.

“Absolutely, I could actually cry right now. I have a child, and as an administrator I feel like the captain goes down with the ship. There’s more than 400 kids here,” she said.

Following Monday’s tour, Barnes Elementary was scheduled to receive the same assessment on Tuesday.

“I do think that it’s a good thing to periodically go through the buildings to make sure we’re up to par in terms of our safety procedures. What I do know is a concern for our staff is, although we have our basic procedures in place, they’re now wondering what if somebody gets into a classroom, what if somebody gets into a common area,” said Superintendent Dr. Bernard DiLullo Jr. “So now we’re talking about what other kind of training can we provide for our staff to manage those possibilities.”

DiLullo believes that if the mayor and the school committee commits to these security changes and upgrades that they will happen.

“Obviously, it may be a quick fix, in terms of short-term improvements, but long range we’re talking about building at least one new building and possibly an elementary school campus. Once you build a new building, we can put in state-of-the-art safety equipment in,” he said.

An alleged incident that occurred on Wednesday, February 28 that led to a school lockdown and the arrests of three Johnston High School students and was deemed a hoax by school and police officials is still being addressed. According to the superintendent, the three students are still suspended and have not been back to school.

“There’s a plan in place in terms of assessing risk, and we won’t allow those students back until that’s complete, said DiLullo, who added that the suspension of the students is currently indefinite.

DiLullo stated that the school will look into all options to protect the town’s children and will make the best decisions based upon the evidence obtained during the threat assessment.

“Our main focus is always the safety of our kids. The more we can think about that and the more we can drill home to people how serious this is as an event can happen anywhere, people need to be vigilant,” he said. “They need to pay attention to their surroundings, they need to pay attention to vulnerable areas, and we’ll address those matters as soon as we can.”

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