School Superintendent Everett V. Olsen (right) with Assistant Superintendent Kelly Clery to his right. PHOTO BY JOYCE PELLINO CRANE

School Security Topic of Forum for Westford Parents

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About 200 parents attended a forum on school safety, taking the opportunity to ask questions about what security measures have been taken to prevent a shooter from entering a school building or stop someone meaning harm to students.

The March 12 forum took place in the aftermath of recent incidents that raised concerns in the community, starting with the shooting deaths of 17 high school students and adults in Parkland, Florida on Feb. 14, and followed by a cautionary search for a gun at Westford Academy after an alleged threat on March 2. No weapon was found. On March 6, a 21-year-old school custodian was allegedly caught with an illegal firearm on the grounds of the Crisafulli School where he was employed. [Continue reading below.]

The discussion was moderated by Superintendent Everett V. Olsen who addressed the thorny issues involved in securing a school building.

“Things that you would ordinarily think we don’t think about, we’ve thought about,” he said. “But no matter how much we’ve thought about it, there’s still more to think about as we go forward.”

Olsen’s checklist included an overview of modifications made to the school buildings, such as locking all doors and facilitating quarterly checks by the fire department, establishing a crisis management team in each of the town’s nine public schools, installing interior and exterior security cameras with a viewing monitor elsewhere in the building and a direct feed to the police department, and employing the use of portable radios with direct communication to police.

Olsen said steps have been taken to secure heavily glassed entrances and office areas. Classroom doors have locking devices, and there are panic buttons in the buildings. Students, staff and substitute teachers are trained in the A.L.I.C.E. (Alert, Lock Down, Inform, Counter, Evacuate) program designed to teach targets of a mass shooter what to do to survive. There is even a plan for shutting down the school’s heating system and elevator, Olsen said.

Mental health concerns

Namita Gupta, parent to a sixth- and twelfth-grader, kicked off the question period by spotlighting the mental health issue of depression among students.

“…my daughter was once in a class with a kid who was talking about how depressed he was,” said Gupta, “and she didn’t know what to do about it…”

Gupta suggested that the school “have a conversation” with the students to teach them how to handle such a situation.

Mental health concerns came up again toward the end of the meeting when Day School third-grade teacher Nicole Keefe spotlighted the issue.

“We are not addressing some of the mental health issues as best we could,” she said, adding she’d like more money going toward guidance counselors and school psychologists, with an emphasis on elementary school children.

“I see it as little as 8-years-old and that’s where we need to go,” said Keefe.

Hiring policy

The issues raised ranged broadly from the classroom challenges to hiring policies.

One parent asked how non-teaching personnel are interviewed. Olsen said the backgrounds are checked and interviews conducted.

“We do our best to hire the person who we think will do the job,” Olsen said. “But also do the job well and represent the school system well.”

Arrested custodian

Lanea Tripp carried that line of questioning further, pointing to the case of the arrested custodian whose bail was set at $2,000.

“I don’t as a parent consider this done,” said Tripp. “If this kid was disgruntled before, after we arrested him and fired him from his job, does he feel better? I want to know what’s going to happen next?”

Police Chief Thomas McEnaney fielded the question.

“The courts have taken steps to make sure he doesn’t come back here,” McEnaney said of former custodian James Healy. McEnaney said his officers will continue to monitor the case.

More security

One parent asked if it’s time to staff school buildings with trained marshals equipped with firearms but who blend into the student body without detection — the equivalent of an air marshal found on passenger airplanes.

“We would like to keep these people out, but they do get in somehow and they do have access to weapons, legally or illegally,” said the woman.

Olsen said he’ll be asking for more school resource officers — in uniform or not — in fiscal 2020, beginning July 1, 2019, but acknowledged there won’t be enough money to staff all of the schools in town.

McEnaney said there’s been discussion of using highly trained retired police officers inside the schools.

“It isn’t time for metal detectors, but we do have that capability,” he said. Such a program would be implemented through the School Threat Assessment and Response System, a regional effort to prevent threats of violence in schools under the North Eastern Massachusetts Law Enforcement Council.

Olsen said he plans to hold another forum on mental health issues among students.

“We need to take a look at that psychological component,” said Olsen. “And if we kid ourselves and don’t, this problem is not going to go away.”

UPDATE – CORRECTION: 17 high school students AND ADULTS were killed on Feb. 14 in Parkland, Florida.