An up-Island school committee meeting to discuss and approve the annual budget Monday spilled into a heartfelt discussion about security in the public schools following the tragedy in Newtown, Conn., last week.
“I think we need to seriously consider having a police officer here in uniform in the building during the school day,” school committee member Michael Marcus said. “Being a presence, making his vehicle a presence. I think we can sit here and say it's a rare occurrence, we want to keep the environment we have, it's a doesn't-happen-here kind of thing, but as far as I'm concerned, there are a lot of assets in this community coming in and out of the building every day.”
The discussion followed a report from West Tisbury School principal Michael Halt about activities at his school Monday, the first day of school since the Connecticut incident last Friday. Mr. Halt said it had been a normal school day that included check-ins with students, teachers and police. The principal said he plans to meet with town police in the near future to evaluate the school's safety procedures and policies.
And while acknowledging Mr. Marcus's concerns, Vineyard schools superintendent Dr. James H. Weiss advocated more thorough study and review before making any decisions. “It's not just about safety and security,” Mr. Weiss said. “It's about having youngsters understand what a policeman's role is and getting to know one another.” He said it would cost the West Tisbury and Chilmark schools about $100,000 each to hire a resource officer with a daily presence in the schools. The Edgartown and Tisbury schools already have resource officers in place.
The up-Island school district includes the Chilmark School, with kindergarten through fifth grade, and the West Tisbury School, with kindergarten through eighth grade. The Chilmark School also houses a private-pay preschool.
Committee chairman Dan Cabot said he supports the idea of a resource officer in the up-Island schools, but agreed with Mr. Weiss on the need for a measured approach.
“While I think this is a subject that needs discussion and study, to do it today just on the basis of the news shows over the weekend would be a mistake,” Mr. Cabot said.
“The other thing to remember about Sandy Hook elementary school is that it had much better security than we have now. They had locked doors, cameras, extensive lockdown procedure. But in order to keep that particular disturbed man out of the building, it would have to look like a prison: bars on all the windows, locked doors. You couldn't have security, certainly not without destroying the culture of the school.
“It seems to me that if there had been a policeman standing in the door at Sandy Hook, he would have been the first one shot,” he said.
“Or he could have been the first one to shoot back,” replied Erin Lambert, a school parent and member of the parent teacher organization. “I agree we don't want to react, but I don't want to pause to the point where we forget, and we don't take advantage of the opportunity to improve or more safely protect our children.”
She also questioned how regularly the schools lock the exterior doors, and whether a buzz-in system is needed.
Mr. Weiss said at the start of the new year that he and school administrators, along with police, fire and emergency responders, will begin a thorough review of security protocols for each of the schools. That will include discussion about possible buzz-in systems and school resource officers.
He said the decision to wait a few weeks was for two reasons.
“We wanted to give people time to reflect, to let the pain move on so that it was not a decision made irrationally,” Mr. Weiss said. “We also wanted everybody together to make a conscious choice of what we would recommend. Any change we put in place needs to be sustainable.”
Meanwhile, grief counseling was available in all Vineyard public schools Monday, three days after the elementary school shooting tragedy that left the country in shock and sadness.
Mr. Weiss said teachers had been briefed on how to respond to children's questions about the tragedy. The goal for this week, principals and teachers said, was to provide as normal a week as possible for the children.
“We're being wary of any deliberate meetings but also validating our own fears and the children's fears,” said Oak Bluffs principal Richard Smith. “We're demonstrating good judgment and taking care of those kids who are highly anxious.
“It's like every place in the country. There's a pit in your stomach. There is a deep sadness for what went on and a desire to pull your kids closer to you. But we have to support our children from a school standpoint and get into the normal rhythm of a day.”
Mr. Smith said he sent an email to parents on Friday informing them that the administration and guidance department would be available to address parents' and children's concerns.
Edgartown School principal John Stevens said he, too, sent a letter to parents, and instructed teachers to reassure students of the isolated nature of the tragedy.
“It's a very sad thing,” Mr. Weiss said. “School shooting in general is terrible. But because of the age and numbers of these youngsters, in a place very much like ours, it just tears at you.”
The Island schools currently have sign-in systems for guests, emergency plans and annual lock-down drills.
“Safety is not something we just look at when these types of things happen,” said Mr. Smith. “I'm anxious about the safety of our kids when they are on field trips, on the bus, out playing sports or here in the building. With a situation like this, everything gets put back in the forefront.”