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Amherst school officials discuss safety after Newtown shootings

Police officers sat in cruisers in the parking lots of all Amherst schools last week during the times when students were entering and leaving the buildings.

Superintendent Maria Geryk said she asked for the police presence to reassure parents and students following the Dec. 14 massacre at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn. “And there’s always a fear of copycat responses,” she said.

Police Chief Scott Livingstone said the officers were not in the schools or in front of the buildings, because he didn’t want parents or students to think they were responding to an actual emergency.

“They were visible but we didn’t want to intimidate or scare people,” he said.

It has not been decided whether the police presence will continue when schools reopen on Jan. 2, he said.

Geryk said she was in touch with Livingstone and Town Manager John Musante within 90 minutes of the shootings in Newtown to discuss appropriate responses. By midafternoon, the school district posted tips for parents on its website, urging them to talk honestly with children about the shootings without using graphic detail, and to encourage children to express their feelings.

The schools made counselors and psychologists available to students on the Monday and Tuesday after the shootings. On Wednesday and Thursday, psychologists from the University of Massachusetts held discussions after school for staff and parents.

On Friday, Geryk, Livingstone and Musante met with Fire Chief Walter “Tim” Nelson, Amherst Regional High School Principal Mark Jackson and other school administrators to tape an hour-long discussion on safety issues. Amherst Media will be telecast on cable channel 12 this Friday at 9 p.m., Saturday at 8:30 a.m. and Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m.

Livingstone said that since the Colorado high school shootings of 1999, police departments have made plans for such emergencies and are prepared for quick action. “We’re comfortable with our response time to the schools,” he said.

Starting in September 2011, Amherst’s school buildings have been locked when classes are in session, and visitors have had to press buzzers to be let in. The district is considering whether this security system needs to be expanded, perhaps requiring visitors to be escorted from the door to the office and then to their destinations, said Faye Brady, director of student services.

Jackson said the staff members must review procedures for lockdown, “shelter in place” and evacuation at the beginning of the school year. In a lockdown, there is no imminent threat but a threat in the area, and teachers lock their doors and continue to teach while officials check around the buildings. There was a lockdown in September 2011 when a bank near Fort River School was robbed.

“Shelter in place” is like a red light to a lockdown’s yellow, said administrator David Slovin. All students are taken out of hallways and put behind locked doors and told to stay away from windows and doors, he said.

“If we have to lock doors, there should be no worry about that,” said Geryk. “Kids are still learning. We’ve learned that if we have a situation, it’s all about keeping our children safe.”

Coordination and communication with public safety and Town Hall officials has been excellent, Geryk said. There’s been sufficient training that responses can become automatic, she said.

Livingstone said officials have to balance the need to inform parents quickly about incidents with the need to relay accurate information. When a student was struck by a car after getting off a school bus this month, misinformation was spread by erroneous tweets, he said.

Geryk said she appreciates receiving tips from parents about how she and other officials can enhance safety.

“We all agree that nothing is more important than the safety of our children,” she said. “We’re thankful for our partnerships and our preparedness, and we’re grateful that we work so well as a community because it makes us stronger.”

Actually the erroneous tweet that a child had been hit by a school bus went out within sixty seconds of that exact same statement broadcast by emergency dispatch to units in the field. Another correct tweet soon went out stating the child was hit by a car while exiting a school bus. Twitter users know that initial information concerning breaking news isn't always perfect. Newspapers used to call it "hot copy."

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