Sandy Hook shootings provoke school officials here to review school safety, security
LENOX -- In many respects, it was a typically bleak, mid-December early morning as students piled off buses to begin school three days after the Newtown school shooting that took the lives of 20 students and six elementary school staffers in a mid-Connecticut, picture-postcard New England community much like Lenox, though on a larger scale.
Acknowledging the comparisons between communities like Newtown and Lenox to Anytown, U.S.A., Lenox Police Chief Stephen O'Brien called what happened "beyond tragic. It certainly brings it much closer to home."
"I'm certain this will bring a full review of school safety and security," said O'Brien. "The police department will be involved in the discussions. It certainly brings a lot of attention to what more, if there's anything more, we can do to ensure that our kids are safe."
On Friday in Newtown, Conn., 20-year-old Adam Lanza killed his mother at her home before bursting into Sandy Hook Elementary School, where he carried out his rampage and then shot himself. The incident has schools across the country evaluating their safety protocols.
In Lenox, O'Brien said he would favor assigning a full-time police officer to each of the town's two schools, if funding were possible. He noted that current budgeting allows only for a school resource officer to be at the high school eight hours a week.
The police chief was on hand at dawn on Monday with School Superintendent Edward W. Costa III and other administrators to meet students at Lenox Memorial Middle and High School as they started streaming in at 7:20 a.m.
"It looked like a regular transition out of the parking lot into the school," said O'Brien.
At Morris Elementary School, Costa was the official greeter shortly after 8 a.m.
"Especially for younger kids, we're trying to give a sense that certainly, schools are safe," Costa said. He has relayed information to teachers on age-appropriate answers if students bring up the tragedy. Parents were notified by phone and email on how to handle queries from their kids.
"You could see the stress in our teachers' faces," Costa said. "As adults, we're trying to fathom this heinous act. So at Morris, we're attempting school as usual, routine, which is what the research says. If kids have questions, we're not going to ignore those. But for this age group, we would tell them people can be sick, minds can be sick but schools are always a safe place, and statistically, we are."
The lesson of the Newtown tragedy, in Costa's view, is that mass shootings at schools and other public places can happen anywhere.
"This is about society. Mental health is an issue. For years, it has been ignored and statistics tell us how wrong we've been," Costa said.
"Let's make sure we're working with all people, from a school and civic community standpoint, from a wellness standpoint with hospitals," he continued. "Often, parents reach out regarding mental health issues, not just with their kids but from employment or with their relatives, and their No. 1 statement always is, ‘we're trying, but we can't get any help.' Society is going to have to get a little better about this."
Costa scheduled a voluntary mid-afternoon faculty and staff meeting, with the police chief attending, to review and reinforce existing security guidelines, which include locked doors at each school, and admittance only by buzzer and on approval at the main entrance.
"We'll certainly be a little more vigilant," he said, "but if we are consistent with our existing protocol, that maintains security."
"The chief was invited as a statement of support for our educators," Costa added. "All of us as adults are still reeling from this kind of tragedy."
"We should probably be discussing surveillance, monitoring," O'Brien suggested. "There's a lot of discussion we'll have to have with the high school and the lower school."
O'Brien contended that firearms regulations are as tight as they can be in the county and statewide. "Our firearms procedures and licensing standards are pretty stringent," he stated, citing state and federal background checks.
"But that doesn't prevent people who are unlicensed from getting their hands on weapons," he said.
Asked whether it's appropriate for civilians to possess military-style assault weapons and multi-round ammunition supplies, O'Brien responded: "I don't know that it's necessary to have all that much ammunition and a gun capable of firing it. It's a much bigger issue than what my opinion is on it."
Responding to a weekend talk-show suggestion from Republican former Education Secretary William Bennett to consider equipping someone in each of the nation's schools with a weapon, Costa said: "I'm not sure firearms have a place in the schools, no matter who it is." But he said the discussion is worth pursuing.
As for proposals to tighten regulations on assault weapons and ammunition arsenals, Costa said that he grew up in a hunting family and is a licensed gun owner.
"To me, it's not guns that kill people, it's people," he said. "If someone is intent to do evil, they'll do evil. I certainly don't own an assault rifle. I don't see where an assault weapon is needed to go hunting. Nationally, we need to come to the center, no one side will get their way. There is a way to still allow citizens to bear arms. But at the same time, let's get a little sensible about the kind of arms we're talking about."
To contact Clarence Fanto: firstname.lastname@example.org or (413) 637-2551. On Twitter: @BE_cfanto.
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