TOWNSEND -- "Nobody can prevent some of things that are going to happen. It's just not possible. But the best defense you have, the best protection you have for your children is right here tonight," said Marien Ryan of the Middlesex district attorney's office.
Ryan was just one of several panelists that Superintendent of Schools Joan Landers invited to North Middlesex Regional High School Thursday, Jan. 4, as part of a school safety information session for parents. Landers organized the event in response to the recent Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings in Newtown, Conn. Also present were Townsend Police Chief Erving Marshall, Pepperell Police Chief David Scott, representatives from the North Eastern Massachusetts Law Enforcement Council's School Threat Assessment Response System team and Margie Daniels, executive director of the Middlesex Partnerships for Youth.
The School Department has a districtwide crisis response team, individual school crisis response teams and emergency plans and protocols for the district that are reviewed annually, said Landers. But following the Newtown shootings, districts across the nation are reexamining their plans to ensure the utmost safety of the children, she said. Part of that is communicating to parents the resources that the district is able to utilize, such as NEMLEC.
Each of the 53 police departments that are part of NEMLEC commit officers that respond to the other towns for a variety of needs, ranging from a need for K-9 units to detectives to SWAT response; STARS, which began in 1999 following the infamous Columbine shootings, is devoted to the safety of the school districts in each town, said Wilmington Police Lt. Scott Sencabaugh.
"We never come in and tell you you're going to do it this way because we're here now," said Sencabaugh.
Rather, the teams helps the district address direct concerns.
"It could be anything from a bomb threat to a sudden loss of life of a student or teacher," he said.
The teams are trained in a variety of areas and have various mutual aid partners, ranging from the FBI to Middlesex Community College, in order to constantly continue their training. There are four STARS response teams so that there is always somebody ready to respond.
"You're not alone," he said. "We're here to assist you."
The local police departments also practice active shooter scenarios. Marshall said it is policy, in an instance with an active shooter, for the first responding officer to enter the school premises immediately to end the threat. As members of NEMLEC STARS, officers have updated layouts of the school in their cruisers at all times. Several years ago, the Pepperell Police Department instituted school walk-throughs as a way to become acquainted with the layout as well as to establish a presence of public safety. Prior to the Newtown incident, the district began moving forward with putting buzzer systems in the front doors of all the schools, according to Landers. Children and teachers go through safety drills.
"We want to make sure we're moving in the direction we should be moving in," she said.
Members of the STARS Crisis Recovery Team, made up of mental-health professionals and social workers, shared tips on how to address issues with children in the event of a tragedy, mainly being approachable, listening to what the child has to say and allowing room for open, safe discussion.
"The more open you can be with your children, the more they're going to come to you, the more they're going to be less anxious," said Crisis Recovery Team coordinator Kristin Kirby.
Parent Robin Eibye asked about the process of packages being delivered and if doors are left open. Landers said that's a question the district will be looking into to make the process as secure as possible.
Eibye also asked about what the schools told the children about the lock-down drills, so that parents at home would be able to answer questions when their children came home and asked.
Landers said although she couldn't divulge too much information about the process for security confidentiality reasons, the children are spoken to about the drills and the district takes into account "the emotional well-being and developmental level of the children involved in the exercise."
Parent Janine D'Eon commended the administration at Varnum Brook Elementary School, where her children attend, for the explanations regarding drill practices.
"They're not afraid of them. They know it's just part of the routine at school," she said.
D'Eon asked about the training the substitute teachers undergo. Dr. Pauline Cormier, principal of Varnum Brook, said that the school generally employs the same subs.
"There's a sense of ownership with subs in the building," said Cormier. "Right away the teachers next door ... show them where (the sub information) is," she said.
Still, she added, the question was one that the district leadership team would continue to evaluate further. She encouraged parents to continue bringing questions to the administration.
"All of what you're saying right now is giving us more information to discuss," she said. "Please bring (your questions) to our attention."