Falmouth School Officials Alert To Impact Of Newtown Shooting

Falmouth Public Schools administrators yesterday grappled with security issues and the emotional aftermath of the school shootings in Newtown, Connecticut, on Friday.

“It was certainly a tragic, senseless act and our thoughts go out to the people of Newtown and hopefully the healing process can begin,” Superintendent Marc P. Dupuis said.

He recorded a ConnectEd telephone call that was transmitted to parents on Sunday indicating that the schools would provide counseling to students wherever necessary.

All the schools practice lockdown drills twice a year in cooperation with the Falmouth Police Department. Yesterday, Falmouth Police Chief Edward A. Dunne added extra patrols near the schools during the day.

If a gunman were to invade a Falmouth school, Chief Dunne said he is confident that his officers are prepared. The officers train in the schools and are familiar with the different layouts and security measures in each, he said.

“We always plan for the worst and we train for the worst,” he said, although none of their training scenarios ever approached the scene in Newtown. “It was never as bad as that,” he said.

There is a full-time police officer assigned to both Falmouth High School and Lawrence School. The police may institute a new school program, in which an officer is assigned as a liaison to each school to address specific issues, Chief Dunne said.

Emergency Staff Meetings

Each principal in the seven Falmouth schools held an emergency staff meeting before students arrived yesterday morning, outlining how they would handle discussion about the Newtown incident. “It is being dealt with a little differently at each school depending on the age of the kids,” Mr. Dupuis said.

Justine M. Dale, the principal at East Falmouth Elementary School, decided not to explicitly mention the shootings in her morning announcements to students, but did extend the daily moment of silence. “I said, ‘The moment of silence will be extended today in honor of those who are suffering at this time of year,’ ” she said.

That decision was based partly on the fact that preschool-age children as young as 3 attend East Falmouth Elementary, Dr. Dale said, and she felt it was appropriate to shield them from the news.

Teachers were instructed not to discuss the shootings in the classroom, and to send any student who was visibly upset to the office to talk with the school counselor. Six or seven students had come to the office to talk by noon yesterday, she said.

As the mother of a 1st grade girl, the same age as many of the victims, she [Justine Dale] also struggled with how to talk to her daughter about the shootings. “As a parent, I shielded her from it as much as I could,” she said. She did explain that a man had broken into a school and hurt some children, but told her that the man was not dangerous anymore. 

Some immediate measures were taken to improve school safety. Staff members were told to enter through the front doors and not to prop open any doors. The most difficult thing was talking to the staff about what happened, she said. “The enormity of the responsibility that we all have was really brought to light on Friday,” Dr. Dale said.

East Falmouth Elementary has security cameras and a buzzer system, so any visitors to the school are admitted with the knowledge of the front office staff. “When I became principal, one of the first things I did was install the buzzer and the television monitor,” she said.

Dr. Dale had a very personal emotional response to the shootings because of similarities between herself and Sandy Hook Principal Dawn Hochsprung, 47, who was one of the adults killed. “For me, my heart was broken, being the same age as the principal, being at it for just a few years, as she was, and installing a security system, as she did,” she said.

As the mother of a 1st grade girl, the same age as many of the victims, she also struggled with how to talk to her daughter about the shootings. “As a parent, I shielded her from it as much as I could,” she said. She did explain that a man had broken into a school and hurt some children, but told her that the man was not dangerous anymore.

Karen P. Karson, the principal of North Falmouth Elementary School, decided to reference the shootings in her morning announcements, but not explicitly. She dedicated the daily moment of silence at her school to “our friends in Newtown, Connecticut,” Ms. Karson said. She chose not to refer to the shootings in more detail, because “at this age, they don’t need the details thrown in their faces,” she said. Counseling is available to any of the children who wanted to talk and two or three students had come to the office to talk, she said.

All the doors at North Falmouth Elementary are locked with the exception of the front door, which is in plain view of the office. They may add a buzzer system to keep the door locked at all times and improve security, Ms. Karson said.

Would Have Reacted The Same

Sandy Hook Elementary School had a buzzer system, which the gunman defeated. Ms. Karson said it is easy to imagine herself reacting the same way as Ms. Hochsprung and approaching the gunman, she said. “I personally know that I would have responded the same way that principal did,” she said. The staff at North Falmouth know to keep their school badges on them at all times and to stop strangers in the school who are not wearing name tags, she said.

Andrea B. Schwamb, principal of Morse Pond School, said she chose not to mention the Newtown shootings to the 5th and 6th graders at her school after speaking to parents over the weekend. The school had counselors available, but she had not heard any students discuss the shootings. “I was checking in on conversations at the lockers and I heard nothing,” she said. “No one was talking about it.”

Her view is that by not discussing it, the students would feel comforted by the consistency and predictability of the school day. “Today is going to be the same that it was last Thursday and Friday,” she said. One of the most important parts of school is the structure it offers to students, she said.

It is her goal to make each student that goes to Morse Pond School feel special and appreciated. “Every single one of them has magic inside them,” Ms. Schwamb said.

 There are improvements that could be made in terms of the safety at the school, she said. The front doors are unlocked during the day, and there is no buzzer system or video monitoring. Ms. Schwamb has asked for a buzzer for years; the system would cost between $3,000 and $8,000 depending on how sophisticated it is. Some parents did not want the buzzer, because of how it would affect the school culture, she said. “I think the discussion is over, I think the buzzer is coming,” she said.

Overall, Ms. Schwamb said she has tried hard to make the school environment safe, caring and friendly for the students and staff. At Morse Pond School they have improved their safety protocols, including rearranging classrooms to expedite evacuations. Now all the students and staff can be outside the school in 30 seconds, she said. They have also practiced lockdown drills where all the school administrators left the building and a secretary was responsible to approximate different scenarios. It is impressive how well the students do in the lockdown drills, she said. “You can hear a pin drop in this place when you call a lockdown,” she said.

The fact that the killer, Adam Lanza, 20, decided to go into a school to kill students made Ms. Schwamb wonder what his experiences were as a student and what could have been done differently. “It makes me wonder, who was he and what did he need?” she said.

It is her goal to make each student that goes to Morse Pond School feel special and appreciated. “Every single one of them has magic inside them,” she said. “Hopefully they realize that you see it and they start to see it, regardless of where they’re coming from and what their quirks are.”

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