Keeping Kids Safe Is Priority Number One At Monomoy Schools

By: Kat Szmit

Topics: Police, Fire And Harbormaster News , Monomoy Regional School District

Students arrive at Harwich Elementary School on the first day of classes in September. Educators and administrators in the Monomoy district are making sure safety protocols are strong in the wake of gun violence in Florida. FILE PHOTO

Parkland, Fla., is more than 1,500 miles from Cape Cod, but a mass shooting inside the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School there on Feb. 14 shook the Monomoy School District to its core, with educators and local officials redoubling efforts to keep students safe.

“I think every time something like this happens, it causes everybody to rethink,” said Harwich Police Chief David Guillemette. “It brings the issue to the forefront.”

The big question for communities is, “How do we ensure the safety of our students?”

At Monomoy Regional High School, safety checks began immediately with a meeting between High School Principal William Burkhead, facilities director Rick Travers, and head custodian Cliff Steinruck to be sure all of the building's automatic doors and locks, as well as the distress buttons school staff can push to reach local police in the event of an emergency, were working properly.

Burkhead also sent a memo to families that included information about a March 8 intruder drill, which he said will be the first since the start of school. His goal going forward is to make such drills regularities, much like fire drills.

“There are no laws regarding intruder drills,” Burkhead said. “We're not going to wait for that law. We're just going to do it.”

Monomoy Middle School Principal Mark Wilson also sent a letter to parents regarding school safety precautions, which included a Feb. 28 refresher training for staff on dealing with a hostile intruder, with plans for a school-wide drill in late March.

“We do drills all the time with kids,” said Wilson. “Obviously the most common are fire drills, but in the course of this year we brought students down to the reunification point where they would meet if there was an active shooter on the grounds.”

Both Burkhead and Wilson are part of the district crisis team, comprised of administrators, educators, and police and fire officials, which also met recently to further discussions on ensuring student safety.

Working in Monomoy High School's favor is the presence of School Resource Officer Tommy Clarke, one of two Harwich Police school resource officers (SROs). John Mitchell fulfills the same duty at Cape Cod Tech. Guillemette said the importance of having SROs at area schools cannot be underestimated.

“We are blessed with highly trained, motivated officers in the buildings,” Guillemette said. “That's the key component to school safety, having an SRO in the building.”

SROs, Guillemette said, are a crucial piece in communications between schools and local police departments. In the wake of events such as that in Parkland, Guillemette said SROs can offer insight as to what's needed in terms of safety protocols.

“A lot of times we'll check in with the SRO to find out if there's anything further that they need based on what we're seeing across the country,” said Guillemette. “It's a constant review of things once it gets brought to the forefront. Any time there's a potential issue we're talking.”

At MRHS plans are in place to have more of a presence by staff, Clarke, and other Harwich Police personnel when possible during drop offs and pickups, two of the school's busiest times of day.

While MRMS doesn't currently have a full time SRO, the Chatham Board of Selectmen recently approved funding for a full-time school officer starting with the next fiscal year (see separate story), something Chatham Police Chief Mark Pawlina is happy about.

“We're very pleased about that,” Pawlina said. “I look at it as insurance. The whole idea of having a full time SRO is to have someone who can dedicate themselves to best practices, working with staff on a daily basis, and when a protocol or plan is put in place, making sure it's followed. I'm just thrilled with the board at making that decision. I know a lot of the parents I've spoken to feel very happy about it, too.”

Meanwhile, the Chatham Police maintain a regular presence at the school by having officers stop by for lunch, or just to visit, with Sgt. William Massey serving as a liaison between the school and the CPD.

“What we do is maintain a strong presence in the schools on a daily basis,” said Pawlina. “Our whole premise is just to have a strong presence in the schools and have it not be a surprise when we're there.”

Since both Monomoy Middle and High schools are outfitted with security cameras, plans are in place to look at connecting the systems to both the Chatham and Harwich Police, which would allow local law enforcement to have access to cameras should an incident arise. Pawlina is also lobbying for the addition of ballistic-proof doors and locks.

“I've always felt strongly that certain classrooms should be fortified and ballistic-proof with doors and locks, because God forbid an active shooter situation should occur, you have seconds to make a decision on where you're going to go and what you're going to do,” Pawlina said. “If we could have classrooms around the building that are fortified and safe, then why not do that?”

Wilson said middle school building is structurally safe and added that he and his staff will continue to monitor all activity, while ensuring safety measures, such as locking doors, are in place.

Chatham Firefighter Justin Tavano said a “parent university” aimed at familiarizing parents with school response plans was scheduled this past September, but no one showed.

“It's been declining in attendance for the past four years,” he said.

Tavano said the department is planning a class for sometime this spring on critical wound treatment that initially stemmed from the presence of sharks at area beaches, but will also include responding to shooting situations.

At MRHS, Burkhead said he is not only working with the local police and fire departments, but also his students in creating a safe environment.

“I met with student leaders, who conveyed that students are aware such an incident could happen here,” Burkhead said. “Kids see a lot of what happens on social media that we don't. We told them that nothing is too trivial. If something doesn't feel right, tell someone – your mom or your dad, an adult. Just tell someone. We're in this together.”

Because students at MRHS were deeply impacted by the events in Parkland, they want to take part in the March 14 Walkout, a national event in which high school students are peacefully protesting acts of gun violence via planned walkouts.

Burkhead said student leaders at MRHS approached him with plans for a Monomoy walkout, of which the principal is supportive.

“Students want the event to have a purpose, to be safe, and to have a plan,” Burkhead said. “It's going to be a collaboration. There's no better learning experience than real, authentic student voice in a real-life situation. I fully support the student voice. I'm proud of them and proud of how mature they are. We've got some wonderful, bright kids here.”

Something that everyone agrees on is that when it comes to keeping students safe, it takes a village.

“It needs to be a community partnership to keep the kids safe,” said Burkhead.

“We have to get beyond saying that this is a terrible thing to talk about,” said Pawlina. “The reality is this is happening all over the country in all kinds of communities. No one is immune from it. If nothing else, we make these changes and have a lot of peace of mind.”

“It's something you hope never happens,” Guillemette said. “But you try and prepare as best you can.”