In wake of Sandy Hook, parents call for police presence in schools
When Tiffany Spiridakos picked her 8-year-old son up from school on Friday, she choked back the tears. She didn’t want him to see her pain. She didn’t want to scare him. But like parents across the city and across the nation, the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School had shaken her, and she couldn’t help but wonder if her own children were in danger.
On Monday morning, the feeling returned. She kissed him on the head and waved goodbye as he boarded the bus, but behind her smile, was fear.
“Immediately I felt a pit in my stomach like I’ve never felt before. I shouldn’t feel that he is in any danger on his way to school or when he’s at school. It should be the safest, most sacred place for kids to be,” she said.
Spiridakos isn’t alone. On the Herald Facebook page, parents have shared their fears about safety in public schools. Suggestions on how to improve safety ranged from more advanced security systems that require key cards for access to schools, to allowing educators to carry guns.
As part of a larger discussion, residents and parents have brought up the issues of gun control and mental health services.
Bradley Chase posted on our Facebook page, suggesting a repeal of the Second Amendment that would enable states to enact their own gun control laws.
“We’d be making this world a safer place to live for our children, and the question of how to protect our kids from gun violence in our schools would be mute,” he said.
In the wake of the shooting, perpetrator Adam Lanza’s mental health was brought into question. His brother stated he had a personality disorder, and it has been reported that Lanza may have suffered from autism or Asperger’s syndrome. Mental health professionals point out that there isn’t a direct link between the conditions and violence, but some have questioned whether the tragedy could have been avoided had Lanza received a different course of treatment.
“There is no one making sure these people with mental problems are being cared for properly. The problem isn’t guns, it’s the unstable people that are around them,” said Tina Martin, suggesting that an overhaul of the mental health field is in order.
Most often in the past few days, Cranston families have suggested a more direct approach to improving school safety.
“Our children are not safe until there is a police officer at every school. If someone enters the school with a gun, we need someone who is armed to take them down. Our children and their teachers are completely defenseless,” said Danyel Elias Evans.
An increased police presence was a common thread among posters.
“I think there should be more of a CPD presence. If the middle schools and high schools have them, the elementary should too,” said Nicole Costabile, referencing the School Resource Officers positioned at the secondary schools.
A petition to that effect has been circulating around the district since Monday, calling for an increased police presence at all Cranston schools. Spiridakos has collected 60 signatures alone, with 10 other parents working on collecting their own signatures. Parents involved in the petition will be stationed outside elementary schools at pickup, and Spiridakos said they are hoping to set up outside the Shaw’s at Chapel View and the Atwood Avenue Stop & Shop this weekend.
“We want to be heard. It’s a sad world we live in and I would feel better, and the majority of parents would feel better, if there was ramped up security – anything to protect our kids,” she said.
Superintendent Dr. Judy Lundsten isn’t sure that police presence is necessarily the answer. She wants to sit down with the administration and Cranston Police and review best practices elsewhere before making any changes.
“We will work with the city officials to determine what’s the best route to go on this,” she said.
Lundsten has been sending out email messages to faculty and families since Friday, and posting to the district website, explaining that the district will continue to review policies to ensure student safety. She also offered tips from professionals on how to discuss tragedy and grief with children.
“Communication is essential on these things,” she said at Monday’s meeting of the Cranston School Committee. “We’ve got very anxious parents.”
The district had support personnel in every school on Monday and Tuesday. Those services will continue to be available, she said, as students and faculty try to cope.
Already anxious families were again rattled Monday when Cranston Police arrived at Cranston East around 10:40 a.m. to investigate the threat of a weapon. The report came from a student who overheard two other students talking and making mention of a gun. The student sent a text message to a parent, who in turn alerted the school.
The students in question were identified and Cranston Police questioned three 16-year-olds. Their backpacks and lockers were searched, as were all the rooms the students had traveled through that day. A Cranston Police canine officer was brought in with a dog trained in firearms detection. No weapons were found and the students were released to their parents.
Lundsten said the district followed protocol and the situation was handled quickly. By law, the district is required to have two lockdown drills per year, and administrators are trained in emergency management for everything from toxic spills to building intruders.
In terms of building security, though, there is not currently a uniform approach to safety at Cranston schools.
“We’re going to sit and review that and make sure we are uniform across the district. There are lessons here to learn, and we need to look at each individual building,” Lundsten said.
She said that every school should have locked doors, though Cranston East cannot readily meet that expectation, as the school is set on a campus and students move between buildings. Most schools do have buzzers to gain access into buildings, but at least the high schools and Park View Middle School do not. Some other schools don’t have intercoms. Lundsten plans to examine what precautions are in place at each building and revisit what else can be done.
Ironically, the School Committee was already in the process of revising its policy on visitors. School Committee member Janice Ruggieri says this experience will likely color that discussion.
“There should be no unexpected visitors at the school. That’s something that’s in our control,” she said.
Some parents say the system in place is too easily circumvented, and posted that they have been buzzed in and able to roam around buildings without being stopped by an administrator.
That, Lundsten said, should not be happening.
“I want parents to reach out to me, tell me what their concerns are,” she said.
Spiridakos understands that additional security measures come at a cost, but she believes it is necessary. She has already reached out to Mayor Fung and Superintendent Dr. Judy Lundsten, and hopes to present the petition in the near future to both the mayor and Cranston School Committee.
In the meantime, parents are struggling with how to communicate with their children. Kids are asking questions, and they aren’t quite sure how to answer.
Spiridakos’ son is a third grader at Oak Lawn Elementary School. He knew something was wrong.
“He said, ‘Mom, didn’t this just happen in a movie theater?’ So he made the connection to the Aurora shooting. He’s at the point where he’s like, ‘Why would anyone kill a kid?’ It’s so sad that we even have to explain this,” she said.
The issue hit close to home for her son and others in the Oak Lawn community, as there is a Cranston connection to the shooting.
The grandparents of Dylan Hockley, a 6-year-old Sandy Hook victim, live in the city. Mayor Allan Fung reached out to the grandparents this week in a joint statement issued from him and Lundsten.
“First and foremost, I would like to extend my deepest condolences to the families of the victims of the incident in Newtown,” Fung said. “I learned Henry and Theresa Moretti of Cranston lost a grandson in that tragic event. I want to extend my deepest sympathy to them during this difficult time and I want to offer them the support of the city of Cranston. Our hearts are with you and we share in your pain.”
Lundsten likewise extended her sympathy to the family and all those affected by the tragedy, and said that district would continue to “support and assist” students and staff during “this most challenging time.”
Ruggieri said she talked to her kids about being aware of their surroundings. Most importantly, she said, she tried to reassure them and help them to feel safe.
“You can’t stop living. You just have to be aware and take a minute to recognize what’s important. My rule is, you don’t leave the house without saying I love you,” she said.