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North Suburban News

Understanding a Crisis: Recent Events Put Spotlight on School Safety

Dec 03, 2018 08:02PM ● By Katie Lovett

STONEHAM – In the moments after a shelter-in-place was ordered at several Stoneham schools last month, social media started buzzing.

High school officials ordered a shelter-in-place on Nov. 7 after a report of gunshots in the area. Various law enforcement agencies rushed to the area and advised the schools maintain the shelter-in-place until the cause of the shots was found. This was quickly followed by a shelter-in-place order at the nearby Colonial Park elementary school.

Within minutes, a community page on Facebook became flooded with posts from users asking if others knew what was happening or what prompted the order.

Dialogue flowed as parents wondered what was occurring, when information would be forthcoming, and if students were safe. Others chimed in with reports they received from their kids via text.

Numerous parents – and media – called it a lockdown, a different, more serious operation, which it never was.

All as the situation was literally unfolding on Franklin Street.

Superintendent John Macero reflected on the event and its aftermath last week, stressing again that the schools never entered a lockdown.

“It’s an important distinction,” he said. “We knew that we were not in harm’s way.”

During a shelter-in-place, doors are locked and no one can enter or leave the school. Classes continue to be conducted as normal. A shelter-in-place stays in effect until it is lifted by an administrator and can continue after a normal dismissal time if officials feel the situation has not yet been resolved.

Shelters-in-place can also be called by school officials for situations that warrant discretion, such as a student or staff member needing to be transported from the building via ambulance.

The gunshots that prompted the order came from a Malden man shooting rounds into a tree in his friend’s backyard. Police said at the time that they expected to file charges.

A lockdown is ordered in severe instances of threats to safety. Doors into the building are locked, as are all classroom doors. No one can enter or leave. Students and staff immediately relocate to an area of the room away from doors and windows and must remain silent and still. A lockdown can only be lifted when a police officer enters a classroom and announces that the building is safe. Until that point, everyone must stay where they are.

Both shelter-in-place and lockdowns are called by the top administrator in the building at the time, and then the school’s crisis team follows safety plan measures and alert the superintendent, law enforcement, and others.

Macero acknowledges the difficulty technology and the social media climate can cause in such crises.

At the high school in particular, students have phones and when an emergency arises, they will pull the devices out and text their parents, he said.

School officials and law enforcement are responding to the crisis and will give information when they can, he added.

“We are not going to respond [to messages] until that crisis has been resolved; we are responding to the situation in the building,” he said. “We will respond when it’s resolved.”

Macero said he was notified of the shelter-in-place while driving to a superintendents’ conference. Within 20-25 minutes, he sent out a message to parents giving the information he could, he said.

Stoneham schools recently purchased a radio system that allows Macero to connect with any school building and the police, making communication faster and easier. 

The Nov. 7 incident was the first time the high school has called for a shelter-in-place since Macero started as superintendent a year and a half ago. There has not been a lockdown in the district since he began his tenure, he said.

Mistaken identity spurs lockdown at Northeast Metro Tech

When Northeast Metropolitan Regional Vocational High School in Wakefield entered a lockdown last February, Superintendent/Director David DiBarri, his staff and students, relied on their training and practice to get them through the harrowing experience.

The regional school, which draws students from Reading, Wakefield, Stoneham, Woburn, Winchester and Malden, entered the lockdown right at the start of the day after a student arrived at school and informed the administration that she had seen a tweet saying there was going to be “a shooting at Northeast.”

“Immediately, when we got that information, we went into lockdown,” DiBarri said. Law enforcement and crisis intervention teams immediately responded to the 1,250-student school to assist.

DiBarri said he knew he had to immediately get a message out to parents about what was happening. And for every 15 minutes for the first hour of the lockdown, another update was sent out to parents. At the same time, DiBarri was on the school’s intercom system giving the same update to teachers and students.

“The good news was right away we identified the Northeast in question was in Pennsylvania,” DiBarri said. “But we needed to completely confirm that.”

Officials reviewed the tweet and contacted the Pennsylvania school. DiBarri said the thought going through his head was “the one-in-a-million chance that it was for us and Pennsylvania thought it was for them.”

Within a couple of hours, officials were fully confident the school was not the intended target in the tweet.

 DiBarri credits administrators, teachers and staff for keeping the procedure as smooth as possible. The school’s public relations firm monitored all media outlets’ reports to make sure no false information was being reported or posted online. School counselors met with anxious and angry parents. The school nurse was ready, accompanied by a police escort, to visit classrooms and aid students experiencing anxiety attacks or to check on those who needed medical attention.

“The kids were amazing – to sit in one spot for 2 ½ to 3 hours without being loud or being on their phones,” he said.

At the end of the day, as staff gathered for a meeting, DiBarri said he saw the toll the experience had on his teachers. While the school undergoes multiple drills on active shooter training, evacuation drills and lockdown drills, the chance of a crisis ever occurring felt much more real after the lockdown, DiBarri said.

“There were a lot of ‘what ifs,’” he said. “It was a wakeup call. It had not hit home until this time.”

The biggest lesson DiBarri took from the lockdown, he said, was the need to consistently communicate with parents during the crisis, he said.

DiBarri, who has been an administrator at the school for 15 years, said the budget over the last eight years has included funding for safety measures. Northeast Metro Tech has over 100 cameras throughout the school. Two years ago, a shooter detection system was installed in the building, which alerts police where a shooter is located.

‘There’s no magic answer’

Paul Andrews, director of Professional Development and Government Services for Mass Association of School Superintendents (M.A.S.S.), said the statewide organization is always being made aware of new advances and technology in school safety.

There’s a new security system in which all doors in the building are locked by a control system located inside the main office.

“That system to me looks like it has the greatest chance of becoming the standard,” Andrews said. “It could become the norm.”

The hindrance, however, is funding, as the system is costly.

Overall, Andrews said, the goal of the statewide organization is to provide safety training and resources to administrators on what should be done “to the best of their knowledge at the time” of an incident.

“There’s no magic answer that is going to cover everything,” Andrews said, calling each situation “case-by-case.”

Andrews, who joined M.A.S.S. shortly before the Columbine shooting in 1999, says the amount of cooperation and partnerships between schools and law enforcement has skyrocketed over the years.

“Frankly, we’re all in this together,” he said.

 

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