By Jennifer Solis
---- — WEST NEWBURY — Barely one month after the mass shooting that left 20 children and six educators dead at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., two dozen parents, school officials and local law enforcement met this week to discuss safety and security for students and teachers here at home.
Trooper Kevin Coughlin and Lt. Robert Sojka of the Massachusetts State Police Critical Infrastructure Unit led the discussion hosted by Pentucket Regional School District Superintendent Jeff Mulqueen on Thursday night at the high school. Principals from the Pentucket schools and police chiefs from Groveland, Merrimac and West Newbury were also present.
Mulqueen, who previously worked for the Worcester public schools, said his years as a school administrator in an urban setting moved him to immediate action when he received the phone call last month from West Newbury police Chief Lisa Holmes alerting him to the tragedy at Sandy Hook.
With the threat of copycat crimes always a possibility following mass shooting, Mulqueen said, “My prior experience kicked in at that point.”
Within hours, Mulqueen gathered a team of local law enforcement and staff to begin addressing how to better secure the Pentucket schools. He developed a five-point plan that included increased police patrols around the school grounds. When Police Chief Eric Shears of Merrimac recommended he call in the state’s Critical Infrastructure Program team to conduct security surveys of the district’s schools, he immediately agreed.
To the frustration of some parents in the audience, Coughlin was intentionally circumspect in describing the findings of the security surveys and his recommendations for dealing with any safety issues. Coughlin explained that revealing a school’s vulnerabilities and the solutions adopted to address them gives information to potential criminals, deviants and even terrorists at home and abroad.
Coughlin did say that any issues that Pentucket had didn’t “truly shock” him and that the trends were consistent district-wide. Primary problems involved how people access school buildings, particularly after hours.
He said the district lacks written policies on dealing with security and emergency issues. Where are the designated spots for parents and media to go during a school lockdown, he asked. What do parents who work outside the district want their kids to do in the event of an emergency that disrupts cell phone communication?
One parent from Bagnall Elementary School in Groveland said although the doors to the building are now locked and parents have volunteered to be greeters during the school day, she was still able to enter unannounced through unlocked doors to pick up her child from an after-school activity.
“I want that to change,” she said.
A father of a Pentucket Middle School student said he was buzzed in to drop off skis for his child’s after-school ski club trip, but no one checked to make sure that all he was bringing into the building were skis.
And a Merrimac mom tearfully recounted the recent day when she attempted to pick up another child for a friend at the Sweetsir School, but was told that the child had already been dismissed to a different person.
The child’s whereabouts were determined soon after, but the woman was clearly upset recalling the few moments when nobody knew where the youngster was. She said the teachers didn’t seem to know what to do and she wasn’t sure if her impulse to contact the police was an overreaction.
“You call the police,” Shears told her.
Coughlin said all the questions were valid and touched on issues that he and his team have included in their final report. He said the extent to which the district follows his recommendations will depend on how much risk it is willing to absorb balanced with how willing those in the district are to comply with changes. Not everyone shares the sense that security needs improving, so “this is a work in progress,” he said.
Coughlin said people within the schools need to become more aware of security and the messages they are inadvertently conveying to the general public. Doors should not be propped open. Staff needs to get into the habit of asking strangers they encounter in the hallways what they are doing there.
“You can confront without being confrontational,” Sojka said.
Trash left piled in trash cans for an entire weekend or fliers left hanging on the wall from an event that occurred months ago are a signal to someone wishing to do harm that this is a place where oversight is lax, law enforcement said.
“If you’re not paying attention to your walls, you’re not paying attention to who comes into your building,” Coughlin said.
Children’s Castle Daycare, a private business housed in a portion of the Dr. John C. Page Elementary School in West Newbury, was not part of the security surveys. The daycare’s owners attended the meeting to glean ways they can better secure their facility, but Coughlin said he could not give specifics without first reviewing the space.
Mulqueen assured those present that his security team will continue meeting and working as quickly as possible to review and implement the recommendations. But he said the attitude changes within the school community may be the hardest changes to make. Still, he was confident.
“We’re going to get to a better place,” Mulqueen said.
Coughlin agreed. “You are moving in the right direction; you are doing the right thing,” he said.