School safety plans may be more discrete in wake of Sandy Hook shootings

By Janice Steinhagen - Staff Writer
Voluntown - posted Tue., Jan. 15, 2013
(L-r) Superintendent Adam Burows, Fire Chief Jody Grenier and School Board Chairman Diana Ingraham discuss potential improvements in school safety. Photos by Janice Steinhagen.
(L-r) Superintendent Adam Burows, Fire Chief Jody Grenier and School Board Chairman Diana Ingraham discuss potential improvements in school safety. Photos by Janice Steinhagen.

While lockdown drills and evacuation practice have been going on at Voluntown Elementary School for years, school and town officials told concerned townspeople that the focus on student safety will be even sharper in the wake of the Newtown school shooting. “It’s time to reassess a little bit,” said Superintendent of Schools Adam Burrows. “We’re looking at ways we can upgrade specific aspects of our plan.” But, he added, “This is not an initial assessment. This is part of a continuing process.”

About 50 townspeople showed up for a Jan. 7 public meeting to address safety concerns in light of the Sandy Hook Elementary School tragedy, in which 20 children and six staff members were killed by a gunman who ultimately took his own life. Burrows, Voluntown Fire Department Chief Jody Grenier, and school maintenance director Paul Ricard all emphasized the fact that Voluntown has had plans in place for years to react to potential crises, ranging from threatening weather to an active shooter on the grounds or in the building. In fact, said Burrows, the depth of the school’s emergency plan, and its strong connection to local emergency response services, has qualified the town for an insurance rate discount.

School staff conducts lockdown drills and evacuation drills (what used to be called “fire drills”) regularly, and a 12-member crisis intervention team evaluates how well the procedures went and how response time can be improved, said Burrows. A school and community safety team has met regularly over the past several years to firm up emergency response plans, he said.

But as districts around the state beef up security measures in response to Sandy Hook, officials urged townspeople to realize that revealing the specifics of such plans could compromise their effectiveness at preventing similar tragedies. “We have a detailed evacuation plan for the school, but you’re going to have to respect the fact that we’ve got to keep it confidential,” Grenier said. In a crisis situation, officials may need to withhold information, even to parents, in order to ensure safety and protect students, staff and first responders, he said. Misinformation that spread in the immediate aftermath of Sandy Hook proved that erroneous reports “are not fair to the people that it impacts,” he said.

If, for instance, the town were locked down during school hours because of an active shooter in the school’s neighborhood, parents might not be able to have immediate access to their children, Grenier said. “When you don’t know [details], it’s very hard on everybody,” he said. The fire department’s standard mode of response is “you always start out big and then bring it in… It’s chaos. It’s not fun. All I hope and pray is that it never happens in Voluntown, but we’re trying to prepare.”

Selectman Bill Sirpenski said that even line items in future budgets for upgraded security items might seem vague. It would be counterproductive to specify, for instance, where bulletproof glass panels will be installed or how many security cameras will be added. “We have to ask you to respect that, for the safety of your children,” he said.

Sirpenski said that it’s important to keep the school’s primary focus on education. “Can we protect everything? No. We could make the place a fortress, but I don’t think the community wants that,” he said.

State Police Master Sgt. James Gilman of Troop E in Montville assured town residents that the state police are prepared to respond to emergencies in town, despite the lack of a resident state trooper. “There are going to be a lot of changes” in school security because of the Sandy Hook shootings, he said. “We can’t turn our backs to it [and say] it’s not going to happen in Voluntown, because it could. Shame on us, and shame on every town, if we don’t prepare for it.”


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