HARVARD -- On Saturday morning, hundreds of educators, counselors and first responders gathered from across New England to learn about how to handle the unthinkable: a school shooting. The Harvard Safety Symposium was organized by Harvard Ambulance's Jill Reiter.
Reiter and her husband moved to Harvard several years ago from Colorado. They both provided counseling to the community after the Columbine shootings. It was Jill's connections that brought Coloradans to Harvard to speak about school safety, including Frank DeAngelis, principal of Columbine High School.
The symposium was an all-day conference for EMTs, firefighters and police officers, school administrators and mental-health professionals. Speakers included Dr. Madeleine Biondolillo, director of Health Care Safety and Quality, Massachusetts Department of Public Health; John-Michael Keyes, father of Emily Keyes, whose life was taken in the Platte Canyon High School hostage crisis; Dr. Nicoletti, the clinical/police psychologist who was on scene at the April 20, 1999, Columbine school shooting; and chief of Fire Department for Chardon, Ohio.
Principal DeAngelis shared his experience of the Columbine High School shooting. DeAngelis has served Columbine High School for 34 years and has been principal for the last 17 years. Columbine had 2,000 students on the day of the tragedy in 1999.
"I ran out of my office, and my worst nightmare became my reality," DeAngelis explained. "I ran directly into gunfire. I looked at a rifle being pointed towards me. I remember glass shattering." Some students were coming out of the girl's locker room, so DeAngelis got them to a place of safety.
As DeAngelis described the horrific school shooting in which 13 people were killed and many were severely injured, he did not focus on the guns or weapons used, or the security system in place, which included metal detectors and surveillance cameras. He said that he wanted to talk about mental health. DeAngelis advised communities to spend the money on the kids who are struggling. Identify those who are crying out for help. He also recommended that parents stay engaged with their high schoolers.
"Many parents come up to me and say their kids are in high school and don't need them anymore," said DeAngelis. "This is when they actually need parents the most." DeAngelis explained that many parents want to give their high schoolers privacy, and never go into their rooms. He said some parents tell him their kids have locks on their doors for privacy. "If the parents of the boys who planned the Columbine shooting had gone into their rooms and found out what they were up to, I would not be here today."
Perhaps the most poignant talk of the day was given by John Michael-Keyes, executive director of the "I Love You Guys" Foundation, which he and his wife Ellen created to help foster school safety with programs. "I love you guys" were the last words Emily ever texted her parents. Keyes gave the talk along with Sherriff Fred Wegener, who managed the Platte County hostage crisis.
Many first responders in the audience asked questions about the gunmen in the various school shooting incidents and the approaches law enforcement used. Many educators had questions regarding what security systems were in place at the time of the tragedies and what enhancements have been made as a result.
The general consensus was that communication in a mass casualty incident is critical to managing it as effectively as possible. Communication and coordination between the schools, Police and Fire departments, local hospitals and the community is of paramount importance.
Bromfield School Principal Jim O'Shea was one of the educators in attendance at the safety symposium. "I think the symposium is an important topic for the education field. Hopefully we would never have to confront this, however, it's better to be prepared," he remarked.