HARWICH – At the Parent University forum hosted by Monomoy Schools on March 21 the prevailing message was clear: student safety is the top priority not only for educators and administrators, but also for local police and fire officials.
“Most of us have kids in the district,” said Chatham Police Sergeant William Massey. “So we share your concerns as parents.”
The event was held not only to address parent fears in the wake of recent school shootings, including at Marjory Stoneman Douglas, but also to update them about safety protocols in each of Monomoy's schools, with a number of concerned parents filling the library at Monomoy Regional High School.
According to Massey, when it became clear that school lockdowns, or shelter in place protocols, didn't work, a new school safety protocol was created – Run, Hide, Fight. Massey explained that Run, Hide, Fight was partly inspired by survivors of the Virginia Tech incident in 2007.
“What we learned from the Virginia Tech shooting [was that] there were people that went against [the shelter in place] policy and self evacuated,” Massey said. That increased the number of people that survived that incident.”
Massey explained that the RHF method is based on a person's instinct to flee from danger.
“Your natural human instinct is flight,” he said. “Once that school building becomes unsafe, we should teach our children to run away from it. Getting children away is the best way to prevent a tragedy.”
In a Run, Hide, Fight situation, students would first be encouraged to run, to leave their school building, ideally with a teacher in the lead who would bring them to a predetermined place where students would reunite with their families. If fleeing is not possible, students are then encouraged to hide by barricading classroom doors with whatever is on hand, including furniture. Massey said the absolute last option is to fight using classroom materials.
“Fire extinguishers, hot coffee, cold liquid, objects to be used as improvised weapons,” Massey said, emphasizing that fighting back is the last resort. “It’s down to that final immediacy that something must be done. I don’t want anyone thinking we’re encouraging kids to bring in anything to help combat the intruder. When we deliver this message it’s done with age-appropriate considerations.”
That means that protocols are discussed and drills conducted with students in a manner that corresponds with their ages.
“We don’t simulate any bad guys. We don’t talk about bad guys with the younger kids,” Massey said. “We don’t instill fear in the kids. We create an environment of preparedness instead.”
Massey acknowledged, especially regarding the Fight aspect, that Run, Hide, Fight is not without controversy, and added that the process of finding an appropriate safety protocol is always evolving. The Run part of the equation is where the main focus lies.
“Primary response is to evacuate,” Massey said. “We’re encouraging teachers to do a quick peek outside classroom to be sure there’s a safe exit. [Then] take students and swiftly proceed to the next exit, exit the building, and don’t stop until you reach cover and are out of firearms range. It's different from a fire drill. We don’t want them to be in eyesight of the building. We want them safe and out of firearms range. The number one goal is getting everyone out of the building as soon as possible.”
Massey said that while state and federal laws don't yet mandate the number of active shooter drills a school must conduct, in the Monomoy district officials are looking to conduct two or three each school year.
“We’ll let students know in advance that we’re coming and practice with teachers beforehand,” Massey said. “There will be no simulated bad guys, no weapons shown, no blanks fired, or any of the other scary things you may have seen on TV.”
While hearing about the protocols in place assuaged some parent fears, there were many questions regarding added security during the hours before and after school when doors aren't always locked, whether the installation of metal detectors made sense, and how best to protect students on outside playgrounds.
“We could be here all night talking about 'What Ifs,'” Massey said. “What we’ve identified is that the Run, Hide, Fight method is the preferred response. As a parent I stand behind Run, Hide, Fight. We can’t be there for every little situation. We can’t drill for every little situation, but we can prepare as best we can.”
With regard to metal detectors in school buildings, Monomoy Superintendent Scott Carpenter said it's a topic he's wrestled with.
“I go back and forth,” he said. “It’s a balance between how do we help students feel safe day-to-day, and I sometimes wonder about metal detectors, and perceptions that their school building might not be as safe as it is. But it's something to consider.”
Massey said the Crisis Team, comprised of school administrators, educators, and local police and fire officials, is looking into holding recess drills in keeping with the Run, Hide, Fight method.
When it was suggested that each school have an armed staff member, Massey noted that by a Massachusetts statute only School Resource Officers are legally allowed to be armed on school property. At present, there is a full-time SRO at the high school, while local officers visit Monomoy Middle and Harwich and Chatham Elementary schools regularly. A full time school resource officer will be coming to the middle school in the fall.
Harwich Police Chief David Guillemette said one of the best actions parents can take is to have conversations with their children about school safety.
“I know it’s a very scary topic,” said. “Have a conversation with your kids about what they say on social media, about being aware of their surroundings, not just in school but out in public, too.”
Since mental health is a key piece of the school safety issue, the Monomoy district has been implementing a number of programs that allow educators to be more aware of students in need. According to Melissa Maguire, director of special education, counselors receive regular training in myriad areas, including addiction, and a new grant will allow for further training.
“We have just an incredible clinical team,” Maguire said. “We’re doing more than you might see.”
“Our schools are as safe as any other public school in the country,” said Massey. “We’ve gone a long way in a short period of time. I’m happy as a parent as to where we are with school safety and security.”