Local officials review emergency plans, brace for student questions

By Jenna Lookner and Stephanie Grinnell | Dec 17, 2012
Photo by: Jenna Lookner An aerial view of Camden.

Camden — The death of 20 students and six staff members at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., last week has parents throughout the country on edge and law enforcement and schools working to fine-tune safety protocols and to provide a supportive environment for students of all ages in the wake of the tragedy.

Schools prepare

Camden and Rockport school officials are offering counseling as well as conducting a fundraiser for victims of the violence in Connecticut.

"Our primary job is to reassure children and to make sure they can express their feelings," Superintendent Elaine Nutter said.

Nutter on Dec. 17 posted a letter to parents on the district website, noting counselors and staff are ready to answer questions posed by students upon their return Tuesday. Monday brought a snow day to the Midcoast, delaying students' first day back in classrooms after the shootings in Connecticut.

Officials in the school district opted to not inform students of the tragedy during the school day Dec. 14 and instead decided to let parents choose how to inform their children and provided the letter to share ways to do that, she said.

“I think most parents are aware of the resources,” Nutter said.

The letter states “Many resources have been made available through the news media to help parents think about how to talk with and reassure their children. Please know that our counselors and staffs stand ready to assist you, even as we try to cope with our own sense of deep sadness and shaken sense of security. I heard this weekend, and unfortunately cannot recall the source to give appropriate credit, that when tragedy happens, look for the helpers. Each horrific event always brings out people who come forward to help in many and varied ways. The sure knowledge and reassurance that good people step forward to help in terrible times is a gift we can impart to our young folks this season.”

Emergency plans in place for all schools in Five Towns Community School District were updated this fall, Nutter said.

She said tailored plans for each school were reviewed step-by-step in October by school officials as well as local police, fire and emergency management staff.

“The plans cover a range of situations or scenarios,” Nutter said. “...For a variety of circumstances.”

She said a series of exercises also are planned to involve police, fire departments and the Camden Town Office “to make sure we're well-coordinated.” For security purposes, the emergency plans are available to a select few and not made public, she said.

Drills based on different levels of emergency are conducted at each school throughout the school year, Nutter said, noting a stay-in-place drill Dec. 12 at Camden Hills Regional High School. She said no advance notice of drills are given to teachers and other school staff or students. Randomly practiced drills include those for fire as well as evacuation, stay put and lock down, according to the superintendent.

Emails to Camden-Rockport middle and elementary school principals directed press inquiries to Nutter. In a previous interview, Camden Hills Principal Nicholas Ithomitis said a lock down drill will likely be conducted during this school year at the high school, as part of an ongoing practice of several types of emergency drills.

Lincolnville Community School Principal Paul Russo sent a mass email on Dec. 17 addressing the Newtown incident on behalf of LCS. In the email he stated that the school staff would meet Tuesday, Dec. 18, to "discuss our role as educators in helping children work through this senseless horror." He wrote that staff will not begin conversations about the incident and will engage only if students generate discussion or ask questions about the topic.

Russo outlined the tone and conversation guidelines that will be employed by LCS staff in talking about the violence. He wrote that no "gory" details or dramatizations will be mentioned or discussed and all talk must be kept developmentally appropriate. He said staff will be careful to answer questions asked by students and not to politicize or project personal fears or beliefs on impressionable students. Additionally LCS staff will attempt to end any talk of the shootings on a "note of hope."

"We will review all of the safety precautions we currently take each day to keep your children safe, so staff members are prepared to share these with the students. These include locked doors inside and out, panic buttons, security cameras, radio communication inside the building and a very close working relationship with our law enforcement community," Russo wrote. He encouraged parents to call or stop by the school, noting that they should check-in at the office if visiting.

"Together perhaps we can help all of our children process this act of evil," he wrote.

Nutter said many people, including building administrators, are looking for “something tangible” to do to help victims. She said Five Towns CSD will collect donations and send them to Newtown officials Friday, Dec. 21, to be used as school officials see fit. Those interested in making donations should make checks out to Five Towns CSD and drop them off at any district school before Friday, Nutter said. Five Towns CSD then will send one large check to Newtown School District.

Law enforcement reacts

Local law enforcement officials also expressed a strong desire for open avenues of communication, primarily between school administrators and police agencies.

Camden Police Chief Randy Gagne and Rockport Police Chief Mark Kelley reiterated Nutter's statements. They confirmed Camden and Rockport police have been working on updating disaster response plans in recent months in conjunction with the schools.

"The school has got some things in the works and we plan on working with the school," Gagne said, declining to reveal specific details.

Kelley said meetings between school administrators and local responders and law enforcement agencies happen "fairly regularly."

"We always try to review [disaster response plans] to ensure that if there are changes that need to be made we can do that in a timely fashion," he said.

Gagne said disaster response plans "have been in place for some time" at local schools. He explained that Camden Police Department executed a "low-scale drill" at Camden-Rockport Middle School in November and last spring had a similar drill, he said.

A low-scale drill involves both students and staff, he said. He explained police officers work with a scenario during the "simulated lock-down" drill. The November drill involved only Camden Police, said Gagne, but drills can involve multiple law enforcement, fire and rescue agencies.

Maine State Trooper Jeremiah Wesbrock of Troop D in Augusta is involved with police protection in Hope and Union schools.

"The Maine State Police started building relationships with schools four years ago," Wesbrock said in a phone interview Dec. 17. "We started developing an emergency action plan at Hope Elementary School and it spread out from there to rural schools in the three counties of Waldo, Knox and Lincoln."

"I'm at Hope Elementary," he said. "They provide lock downs four times a year. At first, the principal was concerned about the effect this would have on the children, especially the kindergartners and first-graders, but the kids already knew what was going on, and they wanted this drill. There were things we wanted the kids to know."

Wesbrock said state police troopers work closely with the schools and students.

"It helps us to build a relationship with the kids," he said.

Wesbrock said he devoted two to three hours per week at each of school at the beginning of the school year. As time went on and the pupils became knowledgeable about the safety drills, he has spent less time at each school, he said.

Still, Wesbrock said he plans to make two to three school visits each week to maintain the relationships he has created with the children.

"It's an ongoing program," he said.

Kelley said he has spoken with all members of Rockport Police Department since the incident in Newtown.

"The department has reviewed what we do, the day-to-day has been tweaked to ensure that we're present [at the schools]," he said.

Lincolnville Police Chief Ron Young said lock-down drills also have been conducted at Lincolnville Central School in the past.

The Newtown tragedy hits a particular nerve with Young, who was a SWAT team member in San Diego for more than a decade prior to moving to Maine. In March 2001, his team responded to two "active shooter" incidents — at Santana Hills High School and Granite Hills High School — he said. The pair of school shootings occurred less than three weeks, and less than five miles, apart.

"My number one thing when I came [to Maine] was to get involved with the schools," he said.

Young also responded to the 2008 incident at Stockton Springs Elementary School, during which a fifth-grade class was taken hostage and held at gunpoint by Randall Hofland. Young said Hofland was arrested without incident in about 30 minutes. He recalled hearing the report on his police radio while filling his car with gas in Belfast and said he responded in civilian clothes. He noted he and other members of local law enforcement agencies were leaving the scene with the suspect in custody by the time state police tactical teams arrived, raising the question about logistics of emergency response in a state as large — and largely rural — as Maine.

"A lot of the time it takes [law enforcement] minutes to respond to something that takes just seconds," Young said.

Both Gagne and Young attested to the importance of officer training. Gagne said all Camden officers are "active shooter trained." Young said he attends active shooter training programs whenever he can, noting the importance of keeping skills honed and training up-to-date.

Young said his immediate response after hearing about the Newtown shootings was to go to Lincolnville Central School. He said he plans to continue cultivating an active presence at the school, and not just from inside the confines of his cruiser.

"I want to be the first thing students see when they get off the bus and the last thing they see when they leave," he said. "I plan to spend a lot of time there."

Kelley said Camden Hills Regional High School administrators relayed only positive feedback from parents and students following a lock-down drill at CHRHS on Dec. 12.

"People are finally, I think, coming around to the fact that these places of learning need to be a safe haven for students and for teachers," Kelley said.

Young said directly following the 2008 incident in Stockton Springs, he spoke with LCS Principal Paul Russo, who confirmed at that time that there is a plan in place in the event of school violence at LCS.

Though Young and Gagne are both veterans of law enforcement the men said they were deeply troubled by the Newtown incident.

"You can be as tough as you want to be in this job," Gagne said. "But anyone who says they didn't shed a tear [after hearing of the Connecticut shootings] is lying, it just makes you sick."

Young said Dec. 14 was a "tough day" for him. He said the memories from the pair of incidents he responded to in 2001 were close at hand.

"Those events are very vivid in my mind," he said, "I could never paint a picture well enough to say 'this is how it's going to be. There is no perfect answer, but doing nothing is not an option."

All three police chiefs admitted there is no simple solution or master plan to ensure absolute safety at all times, but they attested to the importance of planning, dialogue and collaboration between schools and local response and law enforcement agencies.

"You just don't have a crystal ball," said Gagne. "You prepare for the worst and just hope to hell it doesn't happen."

Gagne and Young both said it's impossible to know what could inspire a person to perpetrate such a horrific crime, be it drugs, alcohol or untreated mental illness.

"If anything this is going to start some conversations," Young said, "somebody might have the right answer, we have to be willing to listen. Not just law enforcement, but everybody."

Media's influence of perception

Dalene Dutton, is executive director of Five Town Communities That Care, a Rockport-based organization focused on healthy youth development and the prevention of "problem adolescent behaviors" including suicide and violence, according to the organization's mission statement. Five Town CTC sent out a mass email immediately following the tragedy offering advice on how to facilitate healthy dialogue about the Newtown incident with children.

"One of the risk factors for adolescent suicide is media influence, sometimes referred to as media contagion. Some forms of non-fictional media coverage of suicide are associated with a statistically significant increase of suicide among those exposed to the media coverage," according to the Dec.14 email distributed by Five Town CTC.

Dutton echoed sentiments expressed in her organization's response email during a Dec. 17 phone interview. She said the roll of the news media can be a crucial factor in how youth — particularly adolescents — react to reports of violence such as a school shooting.

"Certain treatments of news [like this] in the media can exacerbate the problem," Dutton said.

She added she suspects area schools will also have internal conversations about what sort of reactions to expect, and what discourse is age-appropriate. She said Five Town CTC has received some calls from parents seeking additional support resources for their children and for themselves as they cope with the emotional response to the Sandy Hook incident.

Dutton was a longtime teacher in SAD 28 prior to assuming her role at Five Town CTC, but she made clear she is not an expert or a child psychologist. She recalled participating in staff drills dealing with response to school violence when she worked as a teacher.

"Unfortunately these events are not brand new," she said.

She said attitudes toward mental illness are an important piece of preventing violence and suicide.

"Mental illness is not something to be ashamed of," she said. "People need to seek treatment. It should be no different than a physical check-up."

Dutton cited the importance of "building a bridge" by facilitating conversations between youth and caring adults. She said students sometimes talk with their peers about things — which is healthy — but those peers may not have the experience to offer guidance in the same capacity as an adult.

"I hope the message is that school officials care about safety and that they do have a plan," Dutton said. "It's a very important message. Working with young people we can't always promise that we can keep them safe, but we can promise to do the best we can."

Courier Publications reporter Jenna Lookner can be reached at 236-8511 or by email at jlookner@courierpublicationsllc.com

Courier Publications associate editor Stephanie Grinnell can be reached at 236-8511 or by email at sgrinnell@courierpublicationsllc.com

Courier Publications reporter George Chappell contributed to this report.


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