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Carol Anne Costa: Is Lockdown in Suburbia the Sad New Normal?

Thursday, February 27, 2014

 

The days when we can rest assured that our children are safe in school seem to be coming to an end.

Let’s hope not. In what I know was a parent’s worst nightmare, the reality of our new world visited Smithfield High School this week. Some young people in my life attend the school, and I remain close to them and their parents. My thoughts immediately turned to the horrible moments that must have taken place during this stressful situation. I only learned about it on my ride home from work via radio reports. By then the ordeal was over and thankfully with no intruders, gunfire, explosives, or tragic results.

Make no mistake; the reports alone evoked the emotions and terrifying thoughts in my mind. Rational thoughts were supplanted with the harsh awareness that our society can no longer bank on the safety of a schoolhouse. That is the sad, true, and sobering reality—a new normal, if you will. But the situation that developed does pose some important questions. Are we doing lockdowns correctly? How does RI rank in the safety protocols? What is the impact of these active shooter scenarios on our families and education professionals? Many safety experts disagree on the tactics and also question the practice of instructing our children to hide in corners if the unthinkable happens, but should this be revisited? Perhaps the Smithfield story opens a door for a more analytical discussion about these practices and also creates an opportunity for improvement.

A parent’s nightmare

My friends shared their feelings with the in the wake of the circumstances. Hearing directly from them and personally knowing a child impacted solidified for me what must have been an eternal 3 hours for so many families. Their emotions were raw and although they communicated with me via text, the urgency and sense of complete lack of control reverberated with every keystroke. In her description of events, my friend shared this with me after she learned of the lock-down.

“At 2:12 PM I texted my daughter’s friend (I could not reach my child) and she happened to be next to my daughter. She indicated the entire class and teacher were hiding in the stage curtain in the auditorium. The teacher was keeping them still and quiet and many of the kids terrified and crying. The art class was in the auditorium painting a set for the school play. A SWAT person with a really huge gun entered with four other officers shouting, ‘We are on lockdown! This building is not secure.’”

This frightening communication between a student and a parent is a mere clip of the many messages that must have been hurtling through cyberspace, increasing the anxiety of every recipient. I don’t know about you, but just reading that text makes me shiver.

My friends also shared with me the agonizing time spent waiting for answers. My friend said in a text to me, “We were a mess, I was shaking, my husband could barely breathe and we could not look at each other for fear we would fall apart. We contacted other parents who were going through very much the same thing. This was horrible.” I hope all the children, teachers, staff and parents impacted are given ample time to process this shock to the system. We must figure this into our responses as we fashion a more effective approach.

RI fares well in school safety

The news for RI is pretty good as it relates to school safety. In the wake of the Columbine shooting, the nation learned new methods involving active shooter scenarios and shortly after the Newtown tragedy, education systems and political leaders nationwide reexamined policies, procedures, and overall school preparedness in the event of similar assaults. In an article published by Security Director News in October of 2013, RI was held up as a national model. Quoting a safety expert, “States looking to overhaul their school emergency plans should turn first to Rhode Island, says Michael Dorn of Safe Havens International. “We’d have a lower death rate in this country if they did.” Commissioner Gist was also quoted in the story. “Rhode Island focuses on preparation such as drills to keep its schools safe. Rhode Island mandates routine drills spaced out across the school year. The goal is to make it more of a regular experience for our teachers and kids,” she said. “Fundamentally, the promise we need to make to our families is that, every day, when their students come to our schools, they are safe.”

Not everyone agrees

But the news from the safety experts is sometimes at odds. A group called ALICE has emerged from these disasters and is questioning whether a lockdown is enough anymore.

ALICE (Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter, and Evacuate) is training solution that purportedly increases the odds of survival during a violent intruder event. Developed after the Columbine, Virginia Tech, and Sandy Hook invasions, it is a strategy that goes beyond the conventional lockdown. Some parents I have spoken with are at the very least willing to listen to the method as an enhancement of tactics available to our kids. I trust that if you questioned some of the kids hiding in Smithfield High School this past week, they may want to hear about this as an alternative as well. I have talked to the children in my life and right after a lockdown drill more than a couple people say something like, “I feel like a sitting duck.” Perhaps we need to incorporate or seriously investigate more than the traditional response going forward. Maybe this incident can help to garner fresh information from the people involved—both from the students and teachers inside and the loved ones outside—thereby adding on the ground voices to the evolving doctrine.

In the General Assembly

In RI Legislators, Governor Chafee, Chafee's Cabinet Heads, and Commissioner Gist have taken proactive steps to protect our children in the schoolhouse by forging a model plan. This collaborative approach is comprehensive and brings in leaders on many levels. Additionally, a package of bills—designed to empower schools to be more aware and in ready position in the event of an assault—will continue to be forged in this session. The bills will strengthen the existing statute entitled Health and Safety of Pupils. The bills are championed by Senator Hanna M. Gallo (D-Dist. 27, Cranston, West Warwick), Chair of the Senate Committee on Education, and Representative Joseph M. McNamara (D-Dist. 19, Warwick, Cranston), Chair of the House Committee on Health, Education and Welfare. According to the press release, the intent of the package is to address several areas including:

  • Require the Department of Education to create best practices for school safety plans to share with school districts, as well as checklists that districts can use to assess strengths and weaknesses of their safety plans
  • Direct school districts to conduct a school safety assessment in conjunction with local municipal police and fire departments
  • Amend and expand the requirements as to what must be in each school district's school safety plan; Support better communication among first responders and within schools by emphasizing the use of plain language in emergency situations; Codify the need for closer collaboration among RIDE; the Department of Behavioral Health, Developmental Disabilities and Hospitals; Emergency Management Agency, State Police, State Fire Marshal and other safety officials
  • Allow school committees to review school safety plans in executive session to provide a further level of security for students and school employees; Set details and specifications regarding the type, manner and frequency of safety drills in educational facilities.

 

It is refreshing to know that Rhode Island is on the cutting edge of these school safety issues. But for me this is a constantly evolving body of responses, legislation, and dialogue. And this evolution is a priority as it involves the once-sacred and safe haven that is a schoolhouse. We must all get reinvested, as the health and protection of our most precious resource may be—literally—in the cross-hairs.

 

Carol Costa is a public relations and community outreach specialist; she has experience in both the public and private sectors. She is the Chairwoman of the Scituate Democratic Town Committee and has extensive community affairs and public relations experience. She previously served in the Rhode Island Judiciary for nearly 17 years. Carol also enjoyed a successful development stint at the Diocese of Providence as Associate Director for Catholic Education and is currently the Executive Director of the Warren Housing Authority. Her work has been published in several local outlets including GoLocal, Valley Breeze, The Rhode Island Catholic, and Currents Magazine.

 

Related Slideshow: Rhode Island School Superintendent Salaries

Below are the salaries of school superintendents in Rhode Island, starting with the lowest paid. Data is for 2013 and was provided by the state Division of Municipal Finance. Where relevant, longevity pay is also listed. All school superintendents are listed except those in the independent school districts in Foster and Glocester. The combined Foster-Glocester district is included. In order to provide a more informed basis for comparing superintendents from one community to another, the annual student enrollment and total expenditures are also listed. (The data is for fiscal year 2012, the latest available from the state Department of Education.)

Prev Next

34. New Shoreham

Superintendent Robert Hicks

Salary: $45,280

District Profile

Student Body Size: 112

Annual Budget (FY 2012): $4,443,923

Note: Position is part-time.

Prev Next

33. Little Compton

Superintendent Kathryn M. Crowley

Salary: $63,500

District Profile

Student Body Size: 295

Annual Budget (FY 2012): $6,995,203

Note: Position is part-time.

Prev Next

32. Jamestown

Superintendent Marcia Lukon

Salary: $67,039

District Profile

Student Body Size: 481

Annual Budget (FY 2012): $12,049,735

Note: Position is part-time.

Prev Next

31. Johnston

Superintendent Bernard DiLullo, Jr.

Salary: $121,456

Longevity Pay: $2,000

District Profile

Student Body Size: 2,917

Annual Budget (FY 2012): $50,452,203

Salary includes longevity pay.

Prev Next

30. Tiverton

Superintendent William J. Rearick

Salary: $125,032

District Profile

Student Body Size: 1,738

Annual Budget (FY 2012): $28,715,478

Prev Next

29. North Providence

Superintendent Melinda Smith

Salary: $127,600

District Profile

Student Body Size: 3,301

Annual Budget (FY 2012): $47,235,638

Prev Next

28. North Smithfield

Superintendent Stephen Lindberg

Salary: $129,854

District Profile

Student Body Size: 1,704

Annual Budget (FY 2012): $23,498,113

Prev Next

27. Portsmouth

Superintendent Lynn Krizic

Salary: $132,000

District Profile

Student Body Size: 2,590

Annual Budget (FY 2012): $36,591,167

Prev Next

26. West Warwick

Superintendent Karen Tarasevich

Salary: $134,000

District Profile

Student Body Size: 3,374

Annual Budget (FY 2012): $53,918,748

Prev Next

25. Exeter-West Greenwich

Superintendent James H. Erinakes II

Salary: $135,000

District Profile

Student Body Size: 1,678

Annual Budget (FY 2012): $32,331,544

Prev Next

24. Narragansett

Superintendent Katherine E. Sipala

Salary: $138,485

District Profile

Student Body Size: 1,407

Annual Budget (FY 2012): $26,850,371

Prev Next

23. Burrillville

Superintendent Frank Pallotta

Salary: $139,000

District Profile

Student Body Size: 2,418

Annual Budget (FY 2012): $31,681,821

Prev Next

22. Smithfield

Superintendent Robert O'Brien

Salary: $141,481

District Profile

Student Body Size: 2,349

Annual Budget (FY 2012): $34,311,788

Prev Next

21. Foster-Glocester

Superintendent Michael S. Barnes

Salary: $141,756

District Profile

Student Body Size: 1,226

Annual Budget (FY 2012): $18,267,711

Prev Next

20. Bristol-Warren

Superintendent Melinda Thies

Salary: $142,550

Longevity Pay: $2,550

District Profile

Student Body Size: 3,454

Annual Budget (FY 2012): $51,591,792

Prev Next

19. East Greenwich

Superintendent Victor Mercurio

Salary: $144,279

District Profile

Student Body Size: 2,323

Annual Budget (FY 2012): $32,975,952

Prev Next

18. East Providence

Superintendent Kim Mercer

Salary: $144,279

District Profile

Student Body Size: 5,338

Annual Budget (FY 2012): $77,242,920

Prev Next

17. Central Falls

Superintendent Frances Gallo

Salary: $144,900

District Profile

Student Body Size: 2,724

Annual Budget (FY 2012): $51,519,366

Prev Next

16. Coventry

Superintendent Michael Almeida

Salary: $145,000

District Profile

Student Body Size: 4,970

Annual Budget (FY 2012): $67,620,141

Prev Next

15. Cranston

Superintendent Judith Lundsten

Salary: $145,083

District Profile

Student Body Size: 10,030

Annual Budget (FY 2012): $140,651,662

Prev Next

14. North Kingstown

Superintendent Phillip Auger

Salary: $145,352

District Profile

Student Body Size: 4,398

Annual Budget (FY 2012): $61,636,874

Prev Next

13. Westerly

Superintendent Roy Seitsinger

Salary: $146,477

District Profile

Student Body Size: 3,030

Annual Budget (FY 2012): $55,015,253

Prev Next

12. Barington

Superintendent Michael Messore

Salary: $147,500

District Profile

Student Body Size: 3,101

Annual Budget (FY 2012): $44,851,748

Note: Salary includes longevity pay.

Prev Next

11. Chariho

Superintendent Barry J. Ricci

Salary: $149,030

District Profile

Student Body Size: 3,421

Annual Budget (FY 2012): $55,831,939

Note: District includes towns of Charlestown, Richmond, and Hopkinton.

Prev Next

10. Lincoln

Superintendent Georgia Fortunato

Salary: $149,130

District Profile

Student Body Size: 3,236

Annual Budget (FY 2012): $49,551,778

Prev Next

9. Woonsocket

Superintendent Giovanna M. Donoyan

Salary: $150,000

District Profile

Student Body Size: 5,636

Annual Budget (FY 2012): $77,022,482

Prev Next

8. Scituate

Superintendent Paul R. Lescault

Salary: $150,098

District Profile

Student Body Size: 1,492

Annual Budget (FY 2012): $22,330,940

Prev Next

7. South Kingstown

Superintendent Kristen Stringfellow

Salary: $151,008

District Profile

Student Body Size: 3,393

Annual Budget (FY 2012): $59,950,442

Prev Next

6. Middletown

Superintendent Rosemarie K. Kraeger

Salary: $154,059

District Profile

Student Body Size: 2,360

Annual Budget (FY 2012): $37,340,131

Prev Next

5. Newport

Superintendent John H. Ambrogi

Salary: $155,000

District Profile

Student Body Size: 2,005

Annual Budget (FY 2012): $39,683,489

Prev Next

4. Cumberland

Superintendent Philip Thorton

Salary: $158,000

District Profile

Student Body Size: 4,470

Annual Budget (FY 2012): $55,508,846

Prev Next

3. Pawtucket

Superintendent Deborah A. Cylke

Salary: $159,000

District Profile

Student Body Size: 9,072

Annual Budget (FY 2012): $112,889,497

Prev Next

2. Warwick

Superintendent Richard D'Agostino

Salary: $169,371

Longevity Pay: $2,480

District Profile

Student Body Size: 9,487

Annual Budget (FY 2012): $162,729,013

Prev Next

1. Providence

Superintendent Susan Lusi

Salary: $190,000

District Profile

Student Body Size: 22,432

Annual Budget (FY 2012): $364,621,277

 
 

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