What would you do if a high school student approached you and said that they saw another student put what looked to be a gun into their backpack?
Although it’s a question that educators wish they didn’t need an answer for, it’s a question that has only become more important in the wake of an unprecedented number of school shootings in the past decade.
It was also a question principals, assistant principals and central office administrators for Warwick Public Schools drilled themselves on last Wednesday at the Tides Café on the Toll Gate High School campus to ensure that they had the right answers should the unthinkable occur in one of the city’s schools.
“We’re trying to do everything we can possibly do to prepare,” said Community Police Sgt. Jed Pineau, who was heading the training session, along with newly appointed Student Resource Officer (SRO) James Vible, that drew front office staff from every school in the city.
Pineau presented the situation to the room of administrators starting as illustrated above. A Pilgrim High School student reports to a principal or other central office staff they saw another student put what looked to be a gun in their backpack. The student, however, is not able to offer any other possibly helpful information like where the student was going or what they looked like.
After giving administrators some time to discuss possible courses of action among their breakout groups, Pineau made the sobering comment that, “You’ve just had seven a half more minutes to think about this than you would during this incident.”
Responses to the inquiry features several important questions – how do we know if the student was accurate in what they saw; were they outright lying; do we immediately go into lockdown despite these concerns?
“We have to act on what is known, not what is unknown,” Pineau said, emphasizing that even the possible threat of a gun on a school campus is grounds for an immediate lockdown.
Pineau also said locking down should be occurring in conjunction with the initiation of the city’s Mutual Link system, which connects school cameras and communications equipment to emergency responders so they can get the most up-to-date information in real time to help them coordinate their operations to find and neutralize any threats within the building.
Activating the Mutual Link system is important because it immediately makes emergency responders aware of the situation, rather than a call going through 9-1-1, which would have to connect through the dispatch center in Scituate before connecting to Warwick – a process which can result in a 3 to 5 minute response time by local police, a span which he Pineau said would feel like an eternity during a crisis.
Superintendent Philip Thornton spoke up towards the end of the training to express concern that only about 25 percent of teachers in the district had downloaded the free Mutual Link app for their phones, which any teacher can activate during a time of crisis, a fact he said was “very troubling.” Thornton, Pineau and other administrators insisted the app doesn’t track teachers without their knowledge or provide any negative consequences to their phone’s battery life.
As the administrators were led through the progression hypothetical crisis, Pineau gave them updated prompts to discuss and corresponding information as to what the police would be going through, playing simulated radio dialogue between officers outside and inside a school responding to an active threat. He warned that even after such an event has been stabilized, with the threat eliminated or in custody, there is still significant work to be done.
Unfortunately, Pineau said, after such an event, every student teacher and faculty member is either a possible witness or a suspect, meaning that every person in the school has to be questioned by police before being allowed to leave the scene. Pineau also mentioned that administrators will need to put their own emotions aside in order to be emotional rocks for the students, who will likely be traumatized or in a state of shock afterwards.
The training was vital to get administrators on the same page when it comes to responding to a worst case scenario – everything from not pulling the fire alarms, as this simply causes confusion and the fire department to respond rather than police, to not opening the door for someone simply stating that they are a police offer – was covered. The hope is to have all faculty go through the same training by the end of the fall.
Physically, Thornton and Steve Gothberg, director of buildings and grounds, spoke about the safety improvements being made at the schools, including updated locks at John Brown Francis (which will open as a Pre-K facility this September) and adding reinforcing, horizontal metal bars to otherwise vulnerable glass side partitions at main entry points of elementary and secondary schools.
Elsewhere, striping to reorganize the Warwick Veterans pickup/drop-off area and bus entryway has been finished to accommodate an influx of additional buses necessary following the addition of fifth grade students as part of the middle school model beginning this fall. The front steps at Winman are also undergoing a full renovation.
Gothberg also mentioned that contracts to completely repair the PA systems at Pilgrim and Toll Gate were going out for bid soon – though those projects won’t be finished by the time school begins.
“With school safety, you’re never done,” said Thornton. “We’re doing everything that we can to drill and train – the more you train, the better you get.”