Local superintendents weigh in on keeping students safe

Secure buildings, counseling kids and positive environment are key

By: Andy Kozlowski | Madison - Park News | Published January 9, 2013

MADISON HEIGHTS — The second half of the school year is now under way, but last month’s tragic massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn., still weighs on the minds and hearts of educators across the nation.

“I think, school administrator or not, my reaction to it was horror,” said Marsha Pando, superintendent of Lamphere Schools. “I don’t know what creates that kind of evil that allows a human being to hurt children.”

“It was hard to watch it on television,” agreed Randy Speck, superintendent of Madison District Public Schools. “In fact, it came on the heels of the state Legislature passing the concealed weapons law, which thankfully, the governor vetoed. Putting those two things together, it was even harder to sit here watching what happened in Connecticut.

“As a school administrator, you start to immediately think of how you would handle things, how your schools would handle things, how your administration would handle things,” Speck said. “The main question is, ‘Are we prepared to handle a crisis if, God forbid, it ever happened to us?’”

He noted that the school in Connecticut did everything right — the facility was tightly secured and proper protocol was followed. But who would’ve foreseen a gunman literally shooting his way into the building?

In response, the two superintendents say they went back and checked their own schools from top to bottom, as well as the policies in place, should a crisis ever occur.

All exterior doors to all buildings are locked, with the exception of the main doors at the high school. Before, there were other ways into the high school, to accommodate different student schedules, but now those doors are locked, too. And where the main entrance is concerned, there is a camera monitoring, and everyone who enters the building must check in with the receptionist.

Safety drills are held periodically, treated as though they are real emergencies. In the event of a lockdown, the doors are secured in the classrooms, and the teachers get the kids in the corner, as far away from windows and doors as possible. For the younger ones, teachers make an effort to keep them calm, reading to them and talking to them.

“We all have our crisis emergency plans, and we just pray we never have to use them,” Speck said.

Pando said she felt it was important for the schools to help counsel parents talking to their children about the incident. The Lamphere website, for example, has resources on it, detailing just that. One of their main recommendations, Pando said, was to minimize the kids’ exposure to news coverage of the event.

“By showing strength in all of this, and showing good adults are in control, that’s comforting for the children, and that’s what’s most important,” Pando said.

Speck said the philosophy of Madison district is to serve families. By increasing communication with students, families and the community at large, they will be more likely to receive tips about troubled youth and intervene before tragedy occurs.

“Parents, teachers, those who work with kids — when they start to notice kids who are becoming overly aggressive, or becoming withdrawn, those are just a couple of general signs to maybe make contact with the family, or in reverse, maybe the family makes contact with the school,” Speck said. “At that point, we should have a conversation about if something’s happened at home, maybe a divorce or death or something. Communication, early and often, is one way we can invest even more in the child’s wellness.”

Another way is cultivating a culture of compassion in the schools, both superintendents agreed. By stopping bullying and other acts of cruelty, students are less likely to feel alienated and think dark thoughts.

For example, Lamphere High has a group called “Make the Change,” which focuses on positive messages of treating one another with love and kindness. Programs such as these keep the feelings of others at the forefront of students’ minds. 

In the meanwhile, the superintendents say they continue to remain vigilant, and the community at large can help by keeping them informed of potential problems.

“Fifty-five million kids are in school in this country, and our job as school officials is to keep every one of those kids safe,” Speck said. “I think we’re working, especially with our local communities, to say, ‘We, as a community, have to help solve this.’”