TEWKSBURY — The school shooting in Parkland, Florida weighs heavy on all of us. In response, and to reassure parents and caregivers, Tewksbury School Superintendent Christopher Malone issued a letter via email to families late Friday offering resources for managing the many feelings that students may have along with an outline of steps the district has and will continue to take to be prepared for a host of emergency situations.
Assistant Superintendent Brenda Theriault-Regan, a member of the district security team, sat down with the Town Crier and explained the types of preparations the school system has and reviews on a continuous basis to be sure that the students, staff and supporting emergency responders are all on the same page.
The team meets on a monthly basis and is comprised of representatives from the Tewksbury police, fire, Board of Health, and schools, including the maintenance director, transportation director, principals, with input from NEMLEC. NEMLEC is the Northeastern Massachusetts Law Enforcement Council — the body that is a consortium of police departments committing resources to emergency situations such as SWAT needs and dive teams.
According to Theriault-Regan, the district conducts drills several times per year. Plans are comprehensively reviewed and the school department employs the ALICE protocol in its training. ALICE is an active shooter training system used across the country. The acronym stands for Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter and Evacuate.
“Ultimately, we want to empower students to think for themselves in a crisis situation,” she said.
The program is tuned for the various age groups in the schools, ranging from an “I’m not scared, I’m prepared” for the youngest students, to actual active shooter simulations at the high school level.
Theriault-Regan said, “We want the kids to think and react”, explaining that the training is transferable to any public location such as a mall or movie theater.
Theriault-Regan also shared that emergency responders use the school buildings, when school is not in session, to conduct drills, insuring complete familiarity with the premises. She said that other districts have come to observe Tewksbury’s training as it is widely considered to be quite thorough.
Through ongoing evaluation, the schools have implemented sensitivity measures for teachers and students to mitigate trauma during drills, updated their handbooks, and created rolling offices for each school to use during an evacuation. These evacuation measures were put to the test last fall when the Heath Brook Elementary school students were transferred to the Loella F. Dewing school during a power outage, and when the John F. Ryan school was evacuated to the high school during a water main break last month.
Both exercises required coordination on a town-wide level, moving large numbers of students quickly and setting up operations in a new location.
Theriault-Regan said, “we really got a chance to put our plans into action” and was pleased with how students, staff and supporting services mobilized.
The Crier also sat down with Tewksbury Police Chief Tim Sheehan and Detective Andre Gonzalez, an ALICE instructor who works with the schools. Gonzalez and Sheehan also work with local businesses and churches in the community to harden their premises to protect against attacks, such as the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina.
The TPD conducts site surveys and welcomes any business in the town to contact them to set up a visit and premises review. Sheehan is proud of his officers and discussed that now the Tewksbury Fire Department is actively involved in drilling with the TPD for these emergencies.
“Once we have an area secured, the TFD is equipped to come in and start treating people without having to wait,” said Gonzalez. Officers have trauma kits and Sheehan said Tewksbury is ahead of other departments in the state with respect to preparedness he believes.
“We review the final reports on other active shooter incidents and try to learn from those,” said Gonzalez.
Sheehan is confident in the partnership with the schools. Gonzalez and Sheehan describe the kids as “receptive” to the training, and approach it like fire drill training.
“Reinforcing the principles each year keeps everyone fresh” and the coaching approach works well they feel.
“We are doing everything in our power to keep them safe,” said Sheehan.