Mashpee School, Public Safety Officials Grapple With Post-Newtown Future

It was as if it happened to us.

That was the feeling of Kenneth C. Coombs School Principal Elaine M. Pender when she learned about the shooting deaths of 20 first graders and six educators in Newtown, Connecticut, on Friday.

“There wasn’t one teacher who didn’t feel a deep connection with those people,” said the principal of the kindergarten through grade 2 school. “We know that parents trust us with their children, the one thing in the world that is most important to them.”

About 75 Mashpee parents and other residents gathered at the high school auditorium on a blustery Wednesday evening to hear from Mashpee Police Chief Rodney C. Collins, Superintendent Ann M. Bradshaw, and school principals. From conversations between friends at Starbucks to security changes at Parish of Christ the King, it seemed everyone was rattled by the murder of children young enough to still believe in Santa Claus.

Often emotional, the parents wanted to know how the schools planned to keep their children safe. One woman said she kept her two children home from the Coombs School on Monday because she could not confirm that a police officer would be stationed there. One man had to pause to compose himself as he asked how many minutes it takes for police to arrive after receiving an emergency call. Several parents asked whether a police officer can be permanently assigned to the schools.

Chief Collins answered that police officers were, in fact, stationed at each school this week and would continue to be for an undetermined amount of time. The external doors to all the schools are locked and require someone in the main office to open them with a buzzer system, a system that has been in place for years. Each entryway that has a buzzer also has a video feed to the main office, which shows the visitor standing at the door.

There seemed to be increased scrutiny this week, with secretaries asking visitors to identify themselves by name and look into the camera. Nerves were jangled at the middle school and high school when smoke from a door repair project prompted an administrator to pull the fire alarm Tuesday.

Prior to the Newtown shooting, Mashpee police had already conducted “active shooter” training exercises at the high school with a tactical team, Chief Collins said. Now those exercises will be held at the Quashnet School, which serves grades 3 to 6, and at the Coombs School. He is shocked to be planning tactical operations to protect such small children, he said.

“In my 32 years of law enforcement, I never thought I would be discussing safety for an elementary school,” he said.
In the last several years, each school has practiced a “code red” lockdown drill, but not as frequently as fire drills, Chief Collins said. That will change.

In a lockdown drill, children get as far away from windows and doors as possible and sit on the floor, often in a corner. The result is an eerie silence in a place that is usually bustling with small, happy voices, according to Ms. Pender. As she walks through the school and looks in each classroom, it is difficult to find them, she said. Children are told they are practicing in case a wild animal gets into the school, Ms. Bradshaw said.

It is important to protect students from media coverage of the killings, administrators said. The principals and Ms. Bradshaw said they followed the advice of experts this week. They did not raise the topic with Coombs or Quashnet students, and most children showed no knowledge of the incident, Ms. Bradshaw said. She sent out a series of e-mail messages to parents over the weekend with suggestions from experts about how to address children’s questions about violence.

Students at Mashpee Middle School and Mashpee High School had the reaction that you would hope for, Ms. Bradshaw said.

“They wanted to know how they could help,” she said.

At the high school and middle school, students held a moment of silence in honor of Newtown on Monday. Counselors were available and some middle schools students did seek comfort and support, Ms. Bradshaw said.

The student group Peer Leaders held a joint meeting of the middle school and high school on Tuesday and brainstormed what they might do to help. Ideas included raising money for school supplies, sending care packages to first responders, and becoming pen pals with survivors and siblings of victims. Students wrote messages on strips of paper and created a “chain of hope” that they plan to send to Newtown. They decided their efforts should be concentrated in February just as media attention will be fading. Today, in place of the usual blue and white clothing students wear for “Falcon Friday,” they will wear green and white, the colors of Sandy Hook Elementary School.

Grade 9 student Caitlin A. Lee contacted the Enterprise and others to drum up support for the efforts.

“I want to let [the children] know that there are people who care,” she said.

Two days before the Newtown attack, Superintendent Ann M. Bradshaw told the school committee she had requested in the next budget money to restore the position of school resource officer, a police officer assigned exclusively to the schools. The position was cut amid budget shortfalls around 2008, according to a 2010 Enterprise interview with Chief Collins.

Wednesday evening, it seemed the likelihood the town will hire a school resource officer increased, as parent after parent urged a greater security presence in the schools.

Another measure, suggested by Chief Collins Wednesday evening, has not yet received the approval of the superintendent or the school committee. Mr. Collins asked for a real-time video feed from the school cameras at the police department. Ms. Bradshaw did not immediately address the idea, but said that there will be a task force created to consider it and other options to improve school security.

Julie Mauro, who has a 5-year-old and a 3-year-old both at the Coombs School, said Wednesday she would like to see a dedicated police officer at each school, “because an elementary school was targeted.”

The tragedy also led the Parish of Christ the King to rethink its security at religious education program classes at the church, the Reverend Monsignor Daniel F. Hoye said this week.

In the past, the church has left a door open to let parents and students come in and out of the parish complex during religious education program class time, Monsignor Hoye said. About 350 children from grades 1 through 9 are involved in the program with classes on weekday afternoons, Sunday mornings, and Sunday afternoons.

That door will now be closed and locked, and a buzzer will be installed to request access to the building, he said.

The decision was made during a meeting on Monday, after church officials fielded questions from parents over the weekend about security plans, he said.

This marked the first security planning response to the possibility of an attack on the classes. “We have had fire drills, to cover how to get out of the building, but nothing if someone comes in shooting. You know, that wasn’t in our universe,” Monsignor Hoye said.

At Wednesday’s meeting at MHS, a newly-hired pediatrician from Community Health Center of Cape Cod urged the audience to take political steps to change firearms laws, although he did not say how. Dr. Matthew Masiello of Harwich said his son was injured as he played soccer in suburban Pennsylvania by a stray bullet. Someone was trying to shoot chipmunks at the top of a nearby hill and missed. His son survived the injury, but Dr. Masiello said he has encountered too many victims of preventable deaths during his time as a doctor.

“We have a window of opportunity,” he said. “A month or two go by and the horror of it all sometimes subsides. We can’t let that happen this time. It would be negligent of me to think for one moment that something like this that happened in Newtown is not going to happen again.”

(Additional reporting provided by Brian H. Kehrl.)

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