GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

March 29, 2013

Debate divided on school security

By Marjorie Nesin
Staff Writer

---- — The Gloucester School Committee, taking Police Chief Leonard Campanello’s advice to avoid a “knee-jerk reaction” regarding security in the city’s schools, took under advisement the comments and advice of local parents, school members and residents who spoke at a hearing Wednesday night, but did not make any decision regarding any new safety upgrades.

“The School Committee will continue to work on these issues. We take them very seriously. We have a good record of all the information we’ve received tonight,” School Committee Chairman Jonathan Pope said following a hearing hosted by the community at West Parish School. He thanked those who came and spoke and said the committee would take their words into consideration.

Throughout the night, applause was nearly evenly split for proponents of placing security guards in schools, and those opposed to adding any police presence in Gloucester’s schools. Speakers raised a number of possible solutions, ranging from fully armed security guards to implementing an unarmed resource officer, to first securing the school buildings’ doors and windows without bringing in a guard.

Police Chief Campanello kicked off the hearing, expressing that he thinks placing an armed police officer in each school would be unnecessary currently, while there are still other steps to take — like securing school infrastructure first.

“I am not for having an armed police officer in every school. I don’t think we’re at that step yet, but I think it’s great that the dialogue has been opened up,” Campanello said.

The youngest speaker — O’Maley Middle School seventh grader TS Burnham — stood at the microphone to tell committee members that she has always felt safe in Gloucester schools and the idea of adding an armed security guard to her school scares her.

“I’ve always had this fear of a loaded gun at my school, and I came to school to learn and I didn’t come there to be afraid,” she told the committee. “I get that you’re a police officer, you’re a safe guy, there’s nothing wrong with you. It’s just the fact again, sorry to keep repeating it, but the fact that there’s a gun in my school.”

David Graham, a child therapist spoke on the “unintentional consequences” of bringing an armed security guards into schools, including negative impacts on the students’ ability to learn and focus and the risk of guns firing accidentally.

“One of the things that I see is having an armed guard in the school is messaging to the kids you’re not safe, you need an armed guard to protect you,” Graham said. “Look at places that have guns. What happens? Accidents, unintentional consequences. What chance is an armed guard with a handgun against a man with armor and an assault weapon?”

Another speaker, John Rosenthal, answered just that question during his public comment. Rosenthal, who described himself as a gun owner and an opponent to armed security guards in schools, noted that citizens have access to 30 to 100 round clips and assault rifles, while officers are outfitted with 13 to 17 rounds.

“A 13 to 17 round clip is going to do nothing against a 30 or 100 round clip like have been used by these shooters,” Rosenthal said, referring to tragic shootings like the December shooting that resulted in student and teacher deaths at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut, and the Columbine shooting at a Colorado High School in 1999.

More than once opponents noted that armed guards at Columbine were helpless in stopping the shooters. Information released today on the Newtown Connecticut elementary school shooting revealed that the gunman shot off 154 rounds.

Still other proponents — like Joseph Orlando, father to Amanda Kesterson, who initially proposed the idea of security guards and petitioned for the hearing — felt that arming a security guard at the schools is the best solution to protecting Gloucester students in the worst case scenarios.

“Unfortunately, it is our duty to honestly assess the world in which we live. On this issue, the protection of Gloucester’s children, we owe them a sacred duty to educate and to protect,” Orlando said. “Let’s make the news as a community who heeded the lessons of Sandy Hook and said it will not happen here.”

A parent of two Gloucester school children, Brant Harris, said his reason for supporting an armed officer in school boils down to the locations of some of our city’s more rural schools. He suggests we repair the school infrastructure that needs work, but sees “nothing wrong” with shoring up the schools further with an armed officer.

“We live in a rural area. Dispatch times from the central (police) office, which unfortunately we only have one, take a lot of time,” Harris said.

He noted, too, that a guard would help evacuate children quickly in the case of an emergency, if not slow an armed gunman or attacker.

“If you can add any sort of resistance to them, I’m for it,” Harris said.

City councilors Sefatia Romeo-Theken and Bob Whynott each spoke as members of the community, both expressing their understandings of each of the issue.

Romeo-Theken said that, instead of the security guard, Gloucester schools should work to create an environment in which all students feel accepted and counselors exist for students who experience depression or feel bullied.

“When we turn our heads, then we’re to blame,” Romeo-Theken said.

Whynott, a self described “card-carrying NRA member,” said he thinks Gloucester schools need to take interim steps before implementing any plan for armed security guards. He focused on fixing up the doors at school buildings, creating a safer building.

“If I thought we needed to have an armed guard in the school at this point, I wouldn’t be against it, but I don’t think Gloucester’s there yet. We haven’t taken the intermediate steps,” Whynott said.

Marjorie Nesin can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3451, or at mnesin@gloucestertimes.com.