Sunday, November 30, 2014

Remembering Newtown by Taking Action

In a few weeks we will pause and remember the innocent lives taken at Sandy Hook Elementary School during a violent and horrific rampage that shocked the country and prompted a national conversation—once again—about gun control, mental illness, and school safety.

After the senseless and cruel murders, the parents of the victims were left to wander the country pleading with lawmakers to update and change gun laws as one way to prevent a similar massacre in the future.  Unfortunately, powerful lobbyists and political gridlock obstructed common sense gun reform, and nothing really changed.  Although the families may feel they were not heard through the political process, they should take some small comfort knowing that parents, police, school leaders, and local policymakers here in Massachusetts have renewed efforts to ensure schools are safe and secure for all children and the teachers who care for them.

I often remind principals that school safety is Job One and everything else is secondary.  Fortunately, here in Needham our principals and teachers embrace that responsibility with resolve and purpose in an ongoing effort to review school safety protocols, procedures, and practices.  So far this year Town and School administrators have been involved in the following activities:

  Principals and administrators have reviewed and discussed the Massachusetts Task Force on School Safety and Security.  The report, commissioned by the Governor last year, details recommendations and steps communities and schools should consider to enhance student safety and wellbeing.

  Principals, staff, and administrators have convened a School Safety Taskforce to review safety procedures, including emergency drills and lockdowns, to learn if a more robust and responsive emergency response protocol is appropriate for Needham schools.  As part of this effort, administrators and police officials have recently received training and information about the ALICE (Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter, Evacuate) program to determine what makes sense to introduce in our schools for students and staff.

  The Town Manager, Kate Fitzpatrick, and I formed The Needham Schools Emergency Advisory Team (NSEAT) in the aftermath of Sandy Hook to meet semiannually with the Town’s public and private school leaders to discuss school safety, security, and health and share ideas and strategies.  Our recent fall meeting included public safety officials and school leaders from the Needham Public Schools, St. Sebastian’s, St. Joe’s Elementary School, Monsignor Haddad Middle School, Walker School, and Olin College.  A recent Needham Schools Spotlight cable show highlighted school security:  October 2014: Needham Schools Spotlight: School Security

  Health and Safety Committees, comprised of school staff and parents, meet at each school to discuss student health, safety, and wellbeing.  And the School Committee and administration have prioritized Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) programs throughout the school system, including providing SEL advocates at each school who assist the principal and staff with initiatives designed to help students develop resilience, tolerance, care, respect, and awareness about those around them.  Guidance counselors, nurses, coaches, administrators, and teachers provide the structure, support, and encouragement young people need to confront personal and emotional difficulties that may prevent them from participating fully in the life of the school.  Connecting young people to a caring adult is the most important safety and security feature a school system can invest in.

We still have more work ahead of us; school safety and security requires regular and ongoing discussion and planning.  I will never promise that we have it all figured out or guarantee that tragedy will not strike our community or schools.  Our efforts are robust but imperfect. 

But we will continue to think about the unthinkable and work with public safety officials, staff, students, and families to consider and implement plans and protocols that are appropriate and responsible.

And on December 14th we will remember, once again, why this work is so important.
In memory of Daniel G. Barden (2005-2012) and all of his classmates and teachers 
at Sandy Hook Elementary School, Newtown, Connecticut

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