Even before Friday’s school shooting in Newtown, Conn., officials at Maranacook area schools had made plans to improve building security and emergency response procedures.
Donna Wolfrom, superintendent of Readfield-based Regional School Unit 38, had gathered staff and law enforcement officials earlier in the week to run a tabletop simulation as a review of the district’s crisis plan. She chose a scenario that turned out to be eerily similar to what unfolded on Friday: an armed man entering the building shortly after the start of school.
It was unsettling enough to consider the possibility at a meeting, much less to see it happen a few states away, Wolfrom.
“So it kind of scared everybody, but on the other hand they thanked me afterward because it made them think of things maybe they wouldn’t have thought of otherwise,” she said. “I kept saying to people, ‘Hopefully this never happens, but you need to be prepared and think about what would you do.’”
Other school officials in central Maine are doing the same in the aftermath of the shooting, in which 20 children and six staff members at the school died.
Augusta Superintendent Cornelia Brown said administrators will discuss emergency procedures at the city’s schools.
That could include looking at whether there should be armed guards in the schools, though Brown said she is not suggesting taking that step.
“There are really just two options — either prevent people from getting into school or, once they’re in, that you have somebody in the school capable of responding to this type of threat,” Brown said. “As wonderful as the Augusta Police Department is, those minutes it takes for them to respond here could be crucial. As I look at it, through the eyes of a parent, to keep kids as safe as possible, the first choice is to keep (someone who presents a threat) out of the school. The second choice is, if they get in, you have to be ready to address it pretty strongly.”
For several years Cony High School has had an unarmed security guard at the school daily.
“An officer in every school? I don’t know if that’s the right way to go,” Brown said. “But I think there must be somebody in a school who can respond. We’ve always had security officers. But they aren’t armed. There’s nobody able to respond to this level of threat at a school.”
In Waterville, Superintendent Eric Haley said the district isn’t planning additional security measures, staff is discussing how to address the shooting with students.
“As far as security goes, we have what we have,” he said. “The sad fact is that if someone wants to break into your school they are going to find a way.”
Haley said the discussions, particularly on the elementary school level, will address how the shooting should be talked about with students and offer counseling if needed.
“We need to think about how to approach a conversation with those children who have questions,” he said. That approach, he said, involves answering students questions if they have them but also making sure they realize the shooting in Connecticut was an isolated incident and that they should feel safe at their own school.
“We don’t want to scare people. Sometimes it’s better to think about what not to say,” he said.
Pat Hopkins, superintendent of Gardiner-based Regional School Unit 11, sent out a message to parents reassuring them that administrators have and will continually review and update emergency response procedures.
Last year a team reviewed the district’s plan with the help of the Kennebec County Emergency Management Agency. Hopkins met with Gardiner Police Chief Jim Tolman on Friday to talk about offering more training or taking other possible steps.
Hopkins said Monday that some teachers probably will talk about Newtown with students, but it will be a normal day otherwise.
“In terms of security, there’s nothing different, per se, beyond what I wrote about, and that is that we are going to continue to look at our practices,” Hopkins said. “We’re going to make sure that we’re adhering to the components of our security plan.”
RSU 11 installed a new security system at all of its schools last year that keeps the doors locked and requires visitors to press a buzzer for entry.
Brown said Augusta administrators hadn’t yet talked about how to respond to the school shootings, but would likely do so today. Among the topics is how, or if, to talk about the incident with students at various grade levels.
Brown said school staff would refer to an emailed memo from state Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen that provides a list of resources to help educators deal with the shootings. Brown said counselors are available at all Augusta’s schools if students want to talk to them.
In Skowhegan, Superintendent Brent Colbry said a letter will be sent to parents today saying that the district has emergency procedures prepared in the case they are needed. He said that the district periodically re-evaluates those procedures and will do so in the coming weeks.
In the meantime he said a note was sent to all teachers reminding them of emergency protocol, which includes locking down and securing schools, evacuation and accessing first responders such as police and medical care.
“When something like this happens nationally we need to step back and look at what our plan would be,” he said.
At Readfield area schools, school staff who met to discuss a shooter-in-the-school scenario at RSU 38′s six buildings emerged with a list of gaps to address. By the time news of the Connecticut shooting broke Friday morning, they had already started securing quotes for the installation of a buzzer system for each building’s entryway.
Wolfrom said news reports suggest the staff at Sandy Hook Elementary School was well prepared and took the right steps to prevent a larger death toll. RSU 38′s procedures include similar precautions, such as keeping children quiet and away from doors or windows.
Wolfrom said she has asked her staff not to dwell on the shooting and if teachers talk about it, they should focus on the steps the school district has taken to keep students safe.
“They need not to be afraid to come to school,” she said. “And their parents need to not be afraid to send them to school.”
This story was written by staff writers Keith Edwards, Susan McMillan and Rachel Ohm.