Parents say schools bungled notice for active shooter training

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LENOX — A scheduled school safety event this week based on the State Police Active Shooter Protocol aroused concern between two parents who spoke out at the recent televised School Committee meeting.

Schools Superintendent Kimberly Merrick had alerted the community to the Monday training, through a robocall and email sent last Friday evening.

She reported that state police, local police, as well as fire vehicles and personnel, would be at Lenox Memorial Middle and High School and at Morris Elementary School to "inspect each building, review our evacuation procedures and familiarize the students with police presence."

In the message, Merrick stated that "we will not be engaging in lockdown drills during this initial visit. In these unfortunate times when school shootings are on the rise across the country, we in Lenox must prepare our children for an event that we hope will never happen."

Addressing Merrick and school board members Monday night, Alexis Kennedy, parent of twin sons attending kindergarten at Morris and librarian at LMMHS, said she was "deeply confused and concerned about the communication of, and planning for, the district's safety plan."

"I'm here to try to understand why the past weekend's communication from the school felt to us so unclear, so schizophrenic and so incredibly disquieting," Kennedy said. "This has been a very difficult start for us as new parents in the district."

Kennedy said she and her husband, Chris, were "confused and alarmed" when they received the automated phone message. They contacted Morris Principal Peter Bachli for more details, she said, but were referred back to the email version of the message.

"It apparently was very clear to him, though certainly not to us, that police and fire personnel would simply be touring the school," Kennedy added.

She described a robocall message from Bachli on Monday evening informing parents that police had toured the school earlier in the day "to prepare for any safety eventuality" such as stormy weather or a potential intruder.

"A lot of this doesn't make a great deal of sense to me and is fairly confusing," Kennedy said. "My husband and I are deeply concerned that communication on this difficult topic has been done in what appears to be in such a glib, hasty manner."

She asked for more information on how school safety decisions are made and how parents are informed and involved in the district's process.

Kim Davis, parent of a kindergartner at Morris, spoke highly of her son's experience at the school but raised similar concerns, pointing out that, as a recent arrival to the town from Los Angeles, she had checked the school's policy on drills involving school security.

She said she and her husband were surprised by the Friday evening message and voiced concern over communications involving "any lockdown drills, if that's the way this community decides to go, and transparency so that we feel that there's trust between the administration and parents."

Describing school security protocols nationwide as lacking "clear best practice," Davis said that "everybody's fumbling their way towards this."

"Kids shouldn't be guinea pigs," she said. "We really need to be clear on what our motive is. Is our motive here driven by fear or is it driven by safety, which is physical but also emotional?"

She cited "research and many articles coming out" stating that active shooter drills "do more harm than good." Davis told the school committee that those drills "when you name them that way are much scarier and can be a traumatic experience" for students.

She also described schools that simulate incidents involving teachers who "pretend to be shooters and rattle doorknobs — things like this seem a little extreme, to say the least."

Davis acknowledged that "schools are in a tough position, because we're being asked to take on this responsibility, but really, the adults should take it on, not the kids."

In response, Merrick, who started in the post last July, said she had been "a little bit alarmed" that the district did not have security procedures in place.

"I do understand how it can be perceived that students may react adversely," she said, adding that she had consulted the district's union leaders about attending "ALICE" (alert, lockdown, inform, counter, evacuate ) training, and neither one had expressed concern about implementing the program in the district's school buildings.

Merrick cited extensive communication on the district's website about the issue, but pointed out that no formal decisions have been made yet.

She said local police, assisted by trooper Andrew Canata, a member of the State Police School Safety Unit, participated in Monday's tour of the school buildings "to help us identify very basic things, where an intruder might come in, some of our loose ends, how we can be a little bit safer in our buildings."

Merrick confirmed that the district is in the early stages of examining potential active shooter procedures and policies, and she urged parents to continue voicing their views at future School Committee meetings.

"We will not be doing anything that would be simulated practice, shooting guns in a building, anything of that nature," she emphasized. "We are leaning toward the Massachusetts Protocol" which she described as a lighter, quieter approach toward safety than the ALICE method.

"We just have buildings that are missing a lot of parts in the basic nature of things, and that's why the police were here," Merrick said, "basic, rudimentary things that should be done to make our buildings safer."

In an interview with The Eagle on Thursday, the superintendent pointed out that in her message last Friday, "I clearly stated that there would not be a lockdown, but that Massachusetts State Police, in concert with our local police and fire, would be touring our school buildings and reviewing our Crisis Management/Active Shooter procedures as districts are required to do" under state law.

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

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