School security forum draws large crowd of concerned parents and staff

Mar 8, 2018

Dartmouth Public Schools plan to roll out active shooter drills to students, explore safety product purchases, and up its safety initiatives in the coming months.

Those were just some of the items discussed at the district’s school safety forum, held on March 7 at Dartmouth High School.

Although not planned as a response to the mass shooting in Parkland, Florida, this year the meeting attracted much more attention than last year’s forum owing to the topic of school safety at the forefront of many parents and students’ minds.

During the meeting, Superintendent Bonny Gifford discussed the district’s new comprehensive emergency management plan. Completed and implemented last year, it outlines detailed procedures and guidelines for virtually every emergency at the schools, from violent intruders to medical emergencies, earthquakes, and wildlife and domestic animal issues.

Gifford also outlined how the district responds to bomb threats. The emergency plan includes guidelines developed by the Massachusetts State Police in assessing each threat and ranking them based on risk, and taking various actions depending on the identified risk.

Chief Technology Officer Jonathan Gallishaw highlighted high-tech safety tools, like the district’s Mutualink system, which links building intercoms and 263 cameras with the police department. That system is currently operational.

Dartmouth police officer Craig Pimental explained the district’s A.L.I.C.E. protocols for responding to an active shooter incident. It stands for Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter, Evacuate, and gives students and staff flexible options to use in ever-changing situations.

The Alert phase is used to clearly convey an incident to all affected parties quickly. No codes are used, because those could be difficult to follow in a stressful situation.

Lockdown is not used in the traditional sense of closing a classroom door and hiding anymore. Instead, if there are no other options but to hide, it involves creating time barriers to prevent anyone from entering the classroom until police arrive. This includes locking or barricading doors.

Inform involves getting information out as quickly as possible. As an example, Pimental noted in Wareham, police used the school’s Facebook page to find out where students were hiding last summer when police received a credible active shooter threat that turned out to be a hoax.

Counter involves physically taking action against a person causing harm. Everything from throwing an object to confronting an attacker, all to buy time to escape.

“We’re not telling people to go look for the gunman - if you can get away, get away - but sometimes the guy is going to be right in front of you and at that point you have to do something,” Pimental said.

Evacuate involves clearing the school as quickly as possible. It generally takes between two to three minutes, but Pimental said it could be done in as quickly as 30 seconds.

“Get away from the danger if possible,” Pimental said. “It’s the best option.”

Gifford said staff have been trained on A.L.I.C.E. protocols. The district will begin training students in the form of active shooter drills in the coming months.

The first drills are planned for the middle and high school by the end of the month. School officials will be meeting to discuss how to educate elementary school students on the subject.

After presentations, the meeting was opened to the audience for questions. One resident questioned if metal detectors could be installed at school main entrances, but school and police officials felt they would be ineffective.

“I just think we have to be reminded that there is a balance between a campus that is welcoming for our students as opposed to a metal detector,” Gifford said.

Pimental noted they are not a viable solution for violent intruder situations, and added he himself has successfully smuggled a gun past them while vetting the effectiveness of the equipment.

“To deter someone with an AR-15 with a metal detector is not really a tactic that is going to prove safe,” Pimental said. “Doing this as long as I have, I’m telling you metal detectors are a feel good measure.”

Several residents asked about physical tools like special door stoppers that teachers could use during threats. Gifford said district officials we be meeting soon to discuss products that could help make the schools safer, although she stressed no decisions have been made on specifically what to look at.

“We haven’t made any determination, but we are starting that evaluation to see if there are some things we can begin with,” Gifford said, noting that larger items identified may be brought to the town in the future for funding.

Several residents also asked about stationing school resource officers at elementary schools. Currently, SROs are at the high school and middle school.

“They’re not security guards,” said School Committee Chair Shannon Jenkins. “An important part of what SROs do is community policing. They provide security and they're available to the school but they are not security guards.”

She added there are also financial issues with adding more officers.