Andover Townsman, Andover, MA

December 20, 2012

"Our worst nightmare" shakes Andover schools

Officials reflect on security in wake of shooting

By Dustin Luca
Staff Writer

---- — As school buses unloaded at Andover schools this past Monday, a sense of worry and nervousness may have been on the minds of parents and students. Just three days earlier, an event that lasted for just a few minutes in a Newtown, Conn. elementary school left 26 dead, including 20 children.

But once Andover children were inside their schools, the doors locked shut and classes started, a sense of normalcy filled the air.

“I happened to be at West Elementary this morning,” Selectmen Chairman Paul Salafia said Monday night, addressing a three-board meeting. “The environment was actually very normal. The kids were happy.”

Paula Colby-Clements, School Committee chairwoman, said school staff were able to “return to a much-needed routine when, I’m sure, routine was about the furthest thing from their mind.”

Since the shooting rampage first caught national attention Friday morning, memorials and vigils have taken place nationwide to honor those who died Friday. John “Muddy” Waters, head of school at the private Pike School, said he felt “sick to my stomach” when he first heard the news.

“It’s terrifying,” he said. “It’s all of our worst nightmares.”

Paula O’Dea, principal of St. Augustine School, said, “it just brought tears to my eyes, and I couldn’t believe this happened at an elementary school.”

That feeling was shared among public school officials as well.

“In any one time when an event like this happens, we think that those could be our students,” Andover Public Schools Superintendent Marinel McGrath said at a meeting Monday. “They could be our staff. They could be our principals. They could be our community. We just don’t know in this day and age.”

APS leaders, including school principals and administrators, were coming back from attending a meeting in Cambridge when Janet Yedniak, director of social workers, called them to tell them the news.

“Janet immediately called the minute she heard the news, and we started to work right there on the bus in terms of what work we would do when we got back to the school,” McGrath said. As the day unfolded, neither Pike nor St. Augustine School let students know what was happening. Both principals said explaining the events was best handled by the children’s parents.

“We certainly know our kids, but the parents know their children best,” Waters said. “The parents have the ability to control their children.”

By the end of the school day, McGrath sent a letter to parents, which included suggestions on how parents can talk to their children about the shooting.

As time went on, emails and phone calls from parents came in asking about the school’s security policies, if the children were protected and what was in place to prevent similar events from happening in Andover.

Another message went out Sunday explaining some of the town’s practices, but other key details were left out to protect the district’s policies.

“It would absolutely compromise the safety of our students and our staff in the schools” if detailed information was released to the public, McGrath said. While the details can’t be made public, they are constantly in motion and up to date, according to McGrath.

“Whenever there’s an event that happens, like over the summer when there was the shootings in the Aurora, Colo. theater, we actually looked over plans at that time,” she said. “Even though we weren’t in session, that’s something that we just do routinely whenever there’s an event.”

Every individual school has plans and procedures in place that are practiced frequently, focusing on everything from how to secure a building and how to shelter students, to how to evacuate a secured building, if the need arises.

“Safety is our top priority, and we work very hard to keep these up to date,” McGrath said.