, Salem, MA

December 18, 2012

North Shore schools react to tragedy: Are we ready?


---- — On the first school day after more than two dozen children and staff were shot to death at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., teaching went on at schools across the North Shore — but with subtle and sometimes more noticeable differences.

Flags outside schools in Salem and elsewhere were at half-staff.

Marked and unmarked police cars were parked outside schools in Peabody, Ipswich and Beverly at the start and end of the school day.

Staff at one school met with students to pray.

“We tried to assure the students that we were here to take care of them, and that God is always here to protect them,” said Maureen Kelleher, principal of St. John the Baptist, a 460-student, K-8 Catholic school in Peabody.

Like the Columbine shooting more than a decade ago, the tragedy Friday at Sandy Hook Elementary School has put school systems and police departments on alert: If it happened there, it could happen here.

Many schools sent out reassuring emails to parents. Administrators contacted staff over the weekend to schedule meetings to review emergency procedures. Some even convened over the weekend.

“We had an online meeting with administrators and staff on Saturday,” said Peabody Superintendent Joseph Mastrocola.

Police departments stopped by schools yesterday or scheduled sit-downs this week.

“I was on the phone with the chief (Salem Police Chief Paul Tucker) on Saturday,” said Stephen Russell, superintendent of schools in Salem.

Russell, Tucker, the school resource police officer and others met yesterday to review lock-down and other emergency procedures.

Everywhere, school superintendents and police chiefs asked the same questions: Are we prepared for the worst? Are we doing enough?

“We do have different types of protocol in place depending on what the issue is,” said Beverly Superintendent Marie Galinski. “Sometimes it might be a lock-down, sometimes a safe room...”

As in other communities, Beverly police do periodic training with school staff. But is it enough? Could it be better? There are always ways to improve.

“I think we are going to focus on getting training with our new teachers up front at the beginning of the school year,” Galinski said.

The importance of training was reinforced by news reports of the heroism and professionalism of the Sandy Hook staff, who locked doors, drew blinds and did their best to get students to safe places.

“Those teachers did everything they possibly could,” said Kelleher. “They basically saved most of those children. Unfortunately, not all...”

Area police departments have been trained in tactical responses to incidents like this. But, unlike Columbine, the standard procedure today is totally different than it was in 1999.

“The model then was time is on your side,” said Tucker, Salem’s police chief. “That’s absolutely not the way to respond anymore.”

Today, officers enter a building, form as a team if more than one officer is present and proceed rapidly to the scene of the threat.

There are also back-up forces available in a prolonged incident. NEMLEC, the North Eastern Massachusetts Law Enforcement Council, a regional resource, has a rapid response team with blueprints of most schools.

This tragedy has raised questions about security systems and video cameras. The newest schools, like Beverly High, have cameras throughout the building, but that appears to be the exception.

Many school systems have a full-time police officer — a school resource officer — assigned to the schools. But cities and towns have faced budget cuts in recent years and some of those police resources have been scaled back. Salem, for example, once had three resource officers. Now, it has one.

Although the talk on TV sets and radio has been largely about safety, schools may have been even more focused yesterday on the well-being of their students. How were they reacting to the tragedy? What should teachers be doing?

Many schools made sure counselors were available. Letters were sent home advising parents of how to talk to their children, and suggesting that it may not be advisable for young students to watch TV news coverage of the shootings.

Several school officials stressed that it is important to be prepared but not to over-react, and not to lose sight of the important role schools play in the lives of children.

“They key for us is the routine and structure of the day, and letting kids see that they’re in school and they’re safe,” said Mark Higgins, principal of the Witchcraft Heights Elementary School in Salem.

Tom Dalton can be reached at