Lenox School Committee weighs safety protocols

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LENOX — Since storms, fires or shootings can break out unpredictably, state and local emergency responders need to have a plan in place in case of such an event.

That was the message this week from regional leaders of the Western Mass. Safe Schools Task Force at a briefing for the School Committee on the state police's Enhanced Lockdown Protocol.

The school safety and crisis management program, used in some form by most Berkshire school districts, provides "a softer, gentler approach for our youngest students," according to schools Superintendent Kimberly Merrick.

The superintendent is working to implement the Enhanced Lockdown Protocol in the schools in coordination with state and local police as well as fire departments.

State police Trooper Andrew Canata, who is assigned to the school safety unit at the Lee barracks, said state law requires evacuation plans for fires and other emergencies, a sheltering plan for hurricanes, other hazardous storms and for medical emergencies. And a communications plan, updated annually, is required for school staff, parents, the community and first responders.

Students at Morris Elementary and Lenox Memorial Middle and High School have to be instructed "so there's no mystery in the building about what's going to happen if we have an emergency."

"We're trying to secure a safe and secure learning environment throughout the day," Canata said.

"We also have enhanced lockdown plans when someone's trying to cause harm to another human being," he noted. "Sadly, in modern times you have to have these plans for bomb threats, and we have to design the plan and a crisis response team for each building."

Lenox Police Chief Stephen E. O'Brien said his department has been working with both schools over the years.

"This isn't new ... but we really need to step it up a notch and get into this a little more than we have," O'Brien said. "As a school system, we need to be more aggressive in the planning of these things."

"Eventually, it'll be just like fire drills have been for years — an accepted practice and something that staff and our kids know that we do every year, at least a couple of times," said Lenox Police School Resource Officer William Colvin.

The safety drills are low-key, with no simulated violence, Canata stressed. "There are no officers running around the building."

Morris Elementary Principal Peter Bachli acknowledged that "it's unfortunate we're in a circumstance where we have to do these things, but that's the world we live in now, and it's better to be prepared to handle a situation than to scramble if we did have a crisis."

But Kim Davis, parent of a kindergarten student at Morris, voiced concern about the enhanced lockdown and shelter-in-place training.

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"We all understand the need the administration has to be proactive on school safety," she said.

She said she has been able to find "very little evidence" about the effectiveness of the programs.

"At elementary schools, it's such an extremely rare scenario," Davis said.

Still, she worried about the effect of the training on young children: "I'd hate for them to feel that school is a scary place to be."

Along similar lines, School Committee member Molly Elliot voiced "a lot of skepticism about the benefits of action while students are in the schools. When the state troopers came through the high school, it was very upsetting to some of the students," she said, recounting a visit by responders last fall to go over emergency planning.

"It's quite unknown whether this is helpful or not," she added, "and there is risk of causing anxiety and problems at all grade levels. It's important for the administration and staff to be trained, but I have a lot of wariness regarding shelter training with the students."

Elliot also downplayed the relative risk compared to auto accidents.

"I feel as a district we would have much better safety results by doing a wear-your-seat belt campaign," she said.

But School Committee Chairman Robert Vaughan, a principal for 33 years, including a stint in West Cornwall, Conn., spoke of the December 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., that took the lives of 20 children ages 6 and 7, as well as six adult staffers.

"Sandy Hook happened; that's the worst nightmare for a school administrator. I recognize the concerns that parents have about the anxiety of preparing kids for an event that's probably not going to happen, but on the other hand [the 1999 Columbine High School shooting] happened out in Colorado and all of a sudden we had another set of events you had to be concerned about. That said, it's a delicate balance."

Canata, citing personal experience with his children, responded that in view of extensive TV news coverage when violence breaks out at schools, "they feel much more secure that there is a game plan in place."

All-hazards planning, federally mandated, covers everything from storms, fires, hazmat emergencies and criminal acts, he told School Committee members, as well as bullying.

"With social media and other things out there, we need people to come forward and let us know, and if it's not a police problem, it might be a discipline problem, someone reaching out for help," he said.

Clarence Fanto can be reached at cfanto@yahoo.com, on Twitter @BE_cfanto or at 413-637-2551.


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