Bullet incident tests school safety procedures

By Annie Gentile - ReminderNews
Stafford - posted Wed., Feb. 6, 2013
Stafford Elementary School was one of three schools in the Stafford school and library complex that was put on lockdown Jan. 24, when a bullet was found on an M & J Company school bus after morning rounds were completed. Photo by Annie Gentile.
Stafford Elementary School was one of three schools in the Stafford school and library complex that was put on lockdown Jan. 24, when a bullet was found on an M & J Company school bus after morning rounds were completed. Photo by Annie Gentile.

A bus driver for M & J Bus Company doing a morning end-of-run sweep on Jan. 24 found a bullet on his bus, prompting a precautionary lockdown at Stafford Elementary School, Stafford Middle School and Stafford High School. Staffordville and West Stafford schools were not placed on lockdown, as children attending those schools do not ride that particular bus.

The incident followed a Jan. 22 discovery of a .22 caliber round found by a custodian in a hallway at Hazardville Memorial Elementary School in Enfield. On Friday, Feb. 1, a shotgun shell was found on a bus that transports children to Hall Memorial School in Willington.

For the incident in Stafford, the district utilized its emergency notification system to inform parents, staff and the community.

“The call came in from the bus company, and after consulting with the superintendent of schools, the decision was made to lock down all three schools at once,” said Sgt. Thomas Duncan, of the Stafford Resident Trooper's Office. “I called in troopers from Mansfield, Tolland, Somers and Ellington to help conduct a lockdown and closed Levinthal Run up to the schools.”

Duncan said three troopers went to each of the schools to interview each of the students who rode the bus that morning and to make a search of their backpacks and lockers. Duncan said a parent provided information that helped identify the student responsible.

“There was never a threat made, and the lockdown was done on a precautionary basis only,” said Duncan.

Troopers also conducted a search of the buildings, including using dogs specially trained to identify gunpowder. No additional items were found in the searches, and the lockdown was lifted later in the day.

In a subsequent notification to parents and guardians, staff, students and the community, Superintendent of Schools Patricia Collin announced that the student, a minor, who was responsible for bringing the bullet onto the school bus had been identified and was being dealt with administratively. While the administration would not identify the student or the student’s school, Collin assured all those concerned that there was no viable threat to anyone, and the student’s actions were determined to be a careless mistake.

“Parents, the community, the Board of Education, and staff expressed their appreciation for taking the incident seriously,” said Collin, adding that she did talk with Hazardville Elementary School Principal Bonnie Mazzoli about how her school handled their similar situation, and learned that they also utilized their rapid announcement notification system.

Collin said it is always hard to predict what might happen in any situation like this, but that the Stafford school system spent a great deal of time this past summer reviewing its district crisis plans. She said they also held an administration retreat where state troopers ran a table-top drill that simulated such situations. “I expect we may hold table-top drills on an annual basis,” said Collin.

Collin said Stafford school administrators and law enforcement also participated in a Connecticut School Security Symposium in January. The day-long event, sponsored by various educational organizations, addressed several issues, including best practices for securing school buildings and school security steps that should be taken at the local level.

After the lockdown was lifted, Collin said state police, town police, resident state troopers, school administration and the first selectman participated in a debriefing, and then each administrator from the schools held another debriefing. “We appreciated that a town official participated in this process,” Collin said, adding that she expects they will meet with Duncan again.

Collin said that, in the past, schools typically handled incidents more quietly, but in the wake of the Newtown tragedy, school officials are feeling greater pressure to be more transparent. It can be a double-edged sword as, on the one hand, parents and the community need to be assured that proper safety measures are being taken, but at the same time, the subsequent media coverage might provoke copycat behaviors. “I’m hoping we don’t see more incidents like this,” Collin said.

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