Dear Members of our School Community,
It has been an emotion-packed week as we listen to the news reports of the school shooting in Texas. Our school staff has done a good job to maintain normalcy despite a national climate that is anything but normal. I thank them for all that they do - every day - for the care and safety of our students.
Some of our strategies for school safety are maintained confidentially. We share our district safety plan with the School Committee in executive sessions every year. We discuss safety issues with our police and fire department representatives at monthly meetings that are not open to the public. To do otherwise would defeat the purpose of this work. What I will do, though, is to share some of our efforts appropriate to share so that you can have some confidence in our town's approach to school safety.
Nearly five years ago, when I started in Smithfield, I wrote a COPS grant for the US Dept. of Justice for improving safety in Smithfield. As part of that nearly 1/2 million dollar grant, we renovated the entrances of SHS and GMS (sallyport entrances), added key fob locks, and had a comprehensive safety audit. The consultants we hired for the audit spent nearly a week in Smithfield touring our facilities, reviewing data, and speaking with staff and others then spent some time reviewing protocols, data, and documents. The recommendations from the resulting report have been used by the district over the past 3 years to make continual improvements to school safety.
These safety experts were impressed with the relationships among our police, fire, and school departments. The community policing officers, including the SRO at SHS and the Dare officers for our other schools, understand that their role is to build relationships with students and to serve the school in a variety of ways. SROs are not security guards; schools are not prisons. The safety expert did not recommend additional SROs or metal detectors but instead, put more of an emphasis on mental health. We increased counseling/psychologists to both meet growing student needs and to improve school safety. Oftentimes, the perpetrators of school violence incidents come from within the school community and have had mental health issues that have not been addressed. They also recommended additional training for staff, more written plans for various types of incidents, and other measures.
Our District Emergency Operations Team (DEOT) includes members of the fire and police departments and school and district administrators. The DEOT meets once a month to review our to-do list, review safety protocols, and make decisions regarding school safety efforts. We also have built very strong relationships.
Here are some additional measures we have taken over the past 4 years:
- Improved camera coverage for schools
- "Panic buttons" in school offices that can alert police instantly
- Installed double entry (sallyport) entrances at all schools with double buzzing and bank drawers as layout allowed so that things can be dropped off by people without entrance to the building
- Added outdoor speaker systems so that we can do reverse evacuations in the case when a problem is occurring outside the building and you want everyone to get back into the building
- Began reverse evacuation drills
- Instituted and trained safety teams in each school to evaluate if a child is a threat to himself or others
Of course, school safety is not just about active shooters. There's more of a chance of fatalities from suicide, fire, drunk driving, etc. Admittedly, though, the effects of a school shooting are so devastating and affect entire communities. We do need to do what we can to reduce this threat but we also need to attend to other aspects of school safety. Do we have a food defense plan? (YES!) Are we adhering to fire safety protocols? Are the buildings safe (tripping hazards, air quality, etc.)? Do students have a reliable and trusted adult in the school to speak with if they have concerns? Do we have mental health and drug prevention staffing? Are buses safe? Are our school parking lots safe? Do we have an appropriate concussions policy and practices? Do we have athletic equipment that reduces injury? Etc. Etc.
I visit our schools every week and walk the corridors. What I see are respectful students and a calm atmosphere (thank you, parents!). Some behavioral issues have been creeping up, leading us to engage BridgeRI in an audit of our common expectations and behavioral expectations (this is happening as I type). Children are never perfect (except our own :) ) so bad choices are sometimes made and we, as educators, respond, redirect, and reeducate. The point is that as opposed to knee-jerk reactions, we continually work on improving safety and don't hesitate to make changes to practices or reach out for help whenever needed.
Have a restful, fun, and peaceful Memorial Day Weekend.