If the shootings at Columbine High School in 1999 were every school district’s nightmare, what happened a year ago at Sandy Hook Elementary was the rude wake up call.
For East Greenwich, the response was swift. By early January, police were assessing all six public schools and Our Lady of Mercy, and reviewing lockdown and evacuation policies. In June, the Rhode Island General Assembly passed a law requiring all school districts to carry out such safety assessments every three years.
“We’ve been doing active shooter situations ever since Columbine,” said Acting Police Chief Steve Brown. “We’ve kept up with annual trainings.”
In June, the Town Council approved the addition of a second school resource officer – now, in addition to Officer Steven Branch at EGHS, Officer Bert Montalban rotates between Cole and the elementary schools.
It’s both a way to have police in place in case of an emergency, and to possibly head off potential threats.
“We’re blessed to have two resource officers and a juvenile officer,” said Brown. “Those guys being out there helps us. Bob Houghtaling too.” Houghtaling, the town’s drug abuse counselor, runs a variety of groups at Cole and the high school, targeting different groups of kids.
“I believe that we are even more vigilant in our efforts to ensure student safety,” said Supt. Victor Mercurio. “The introduction of Officer Montalban, our second resource officer, has given us another invaluable support for our students. Officer Branch and Officer Montalban continue to work interdependently with our schools' administration and staff to increase awareness and implementation of best practices to support student safety.”
In addition, Mercurio said, school employees and students have been following “safety protocol practices” outlined by the state.
All school administrators, in some capacity, have also attended the State workshops regarding school safety,” said Eldredge Principal Dom Giuisti.
“At Meadowbrook we continue to treat school safety as an active and evolving process,” said MFS Principal Neil Marcaccio. “We regularly examine procedures and protocols and have devoted significant energy to monitoring of enforcement of our plan.”
“At Hanaford we have discussed safety procedures both in classrooms and during grade level Town Meetings. The students are feeling confident and comfortable,” said Principal Beth Cauley.
“At East Greenwich High School, we continue to be committed to our mission of providing a ‘safe and supportive environment’ for all members of our school community,” said Principal Michael Podraza. “We continue to work with local, state and federal law enforcement agencies to help us evaluate, refine and improve our policies and protocols.”
Acting Chief Brown noted the department has been referring at-risk teens to Houghtaling and Sgt. John Carter (the juvenile officer) for many years – again, in hopes of heading off future trouble.
Of course, it’s impossible to know what hasn’t happened.“I’d like to think in the hundreds of cases we’ve dealt with, we’ve headed off incidents from happening down the road,” said Brown. “But you just can’t put that down on paper.”
For Marcaccio, Newtown resonants particularly because Meadowbrook Farms is a school with "a very parallel profile."
He continued, "I think it is safe to say that we are still grieving as a school community and will never go long without either consciously or subconsciously considering this tragedy as we push through all the great things happening daily in our building."