By Marjorie Nesin
---- — The city’s School Committee has agreed on a 4-2 vote Wednesday night to publicly hear a proposal that aims to place an armed security guard in each of Gloucester’s public schools.
Amanda Kesterson, the Gloucester resident and mother of three young Gloucester children who has pushed the proposal — collecting controversial electronic signatures of support, then replacing those with handwritten signatures after the city denied electronic ones’ legitimacy — requested the public hearing of the board Wednesday.
“It was really gratifying to know that four of the members of the School Committee were willing to listen to members of the community who were really concerned about something,” she said. “It’s an important first step. I’m really thankful.”
Kesterson originally submitted over 250 electronic signatures of support for her petition to the city, 250 being the threshold for requiring city council to hold a public hearing. Those signatures were rejected and Kesterson has since collected about 125 handwritten signatures, she estimates, and she plans to continue gathering support, though the urgency is diminished slightly by the to-be-scheduled public hearing.
“We’re going to continue gathering signatures. We’re just moving forward,” Kesterson said.
The two dissenting School Committee members, Roger Garberg and Kathleen Clancy, pointed to the petition’s use of electronic, rather than handwritten, signatures and research presented by Superintendent Richard Safier that countered the implementation of armed security guards in their reasoning for voting against the public hearing.
“It didn’t appear that the petition had the kind of merit that would call for public input,” Garberg said. “I’m concerned that we’re establishing a standard here of public hearing that dramatically lowers the bar such that it becomes ... it becomes counterproductive.”
“It’s really a matter of respecting the administration’s research and judgment on the issue,” he added.
In a letter to the board that summarized Safier’s research, Safier noted statistics that show armed security guards in schools have never successfully prevented shootings, and that their presence can be detrimental to children, making the students feel as though they are in a lockdown zone. Safier also highlighted his estimated annual cost for the city to pay these security guards would likely fall between $550,000 to $600,000 annually.
“Our course is to emphasize culture and climate, mental health services, and emergency plans as the means for ensuring school safety,” Safier wrote. “We must also be sure that a balance is struck between efforts to maintain physical safety while at the same time preserving an environment that promotes student’s emotional well being ...”
Clancy expressed her full support of Safier’s research and direction, saying that as a principle she will hold the superintendent’s decision.
“I certainly have no trouble listening to the public, so my vote against it was more from a principle of voting against it, not because I didn’t want to listen to the public,” Clancy said.
Another board member, Tony Gross, said he voted in favor of the hearing because “there was certainly no logical reason not to have one,” he said.
While Gross noted that, in the wake of Connecticut’s Sandy Hook Elementary shootings, much of this information has been discussed on a national scale, it makes sense for the School Committee to hear all sides, publicly and as a whole discussion.
“It’s not taking too much time out of our lives to accommodate some concerned citizens,” Gross said. “There aren’t enough concerned citizens in the world. It’s better to have it up front rather than having it happen in coffee shops and on blocks.”
Kesterson had brought the petition before the City Council at a Tuesday meeting, but councilors set the issue aside without a vote, leaving the hearing up to the School Committee.
“I absolutely feel that the city council kicked the can. They didn’t want to deal with it, didn’t want to discuss it, didn’t want to address it,” Kesterson said.
Still, some councilors after their meeting Tuesday told Kesterson they would attend a School Committee hearing — and Kesterson said that’s enough for her, for now, she said.
“It’s better that all the ideas get on the table at the same time,” Kesterton said, “so that whoever has to make a decision and at what time, has all the information to make a decision.”
Marjorie Nesin can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3451, or at email@example.com.