Ever since the learning of the tragic events of last week in Florida, I have struggled with whether, and frankly how, to reach out to our community. While we do not want to appear reactive, and while I will forever strongly resist the idea that since last week's (and other) unspeakable tragedies, we should all live in constant fear of senseless violence, I must acknowledge that each of us has strong and legitimate emotions and questions as we consider the safety and security of our children and our schools.
I hate that we are having this conversation, but nothing is more important to us than the physical and emotional safety of our students and staff. I have to acknowledge the real and understandable concerns of our students, staff, and families.
I do this, however, with the caveat that looking out for, supporting and protecting each other is perhaps the ultimate "we thing." School officials, law enforcement, parents and students all need to play a role in ensuring student safety and we will all be part of the eventual solution to this scourge of heartbreaking violence in our country.
What is the Westerly Public Schools doing to protect our children and staff?
The WPS continually reviews and regularly practices its safety procedures and protocols. This includes regularly scheduled drills for lockdowns, fire, evacuation and other emergency incidents.
Additionally, all WPS buildings have been upgraded in recent years to include multiple-stop electronically locked entrances, buzzer systems, security cameras and locking classroom doors.
The district provides training to staff on safety measures, de-escalation techniques and addressing the needs of students affected by trauma, whether occurring at school or at home.
The WPS also has a very strong and supportive relationship with the Westerly Police Department. In addition to our School Resource Officers, WPD officers are frequently on our campuses to lend support and welcome opportunities to interact with our students.
In hopes that it helps, I offer the following to questions that I know many of us are asking ourselves.
How should I talk to my children about events such as these?
According to the American Psychological Association, "Psychologists who work in the area of trauma and recovery advise parents to use the troubling news of school shootings as an opportunity to talk and listen to their children. It is important, say these psychologists, to be honest. Parents should acknowledge to children that bad things do happen, but also reassure them with the information that many people are working to keep them safe, including their parents, teachers and local police."
For younger children, please be mindful of media exposure — research has shown that television replay often shown on the news may be misunderstood by a young child to be different events.
For our older children, especially those with access to social media, they may be bombarded with messages and emotions and benefit from a conversation with a parent or educator to process their reaction to such situations. As old and as "big" as they may seem, they are still children.
Keep the lines of communication open. As a parent myself, I know this is often easier said than done, but encourage your children to share their emotions and any concerns they have about their safety or the safety of others. They need to know that they can do this at school as well as at home. Too often, we hear about the "warning signs" after a tragedy; we need to be having those conversations before such events, so we can empower those who are in positions to prevent it. Likewise, should you have concerns or information that you feel the school needs to be aware of, do not hesitate to contact your principal, my office or the Westerly Police Department.
Again, student safety is our top priority. My staff and I are meeting this week in response to last week's events and will continue to explore all opportunities to strengthen how we provide for it. We will also be discussing this issue with the School Committee on Wednesday, Feb. 28th.
We are all about improving outcomes and opportunities for children, but we recognize fully that that has to begin with doing all we can to ensure their safety and well-being.
Mark Garceau, Ed.D, is the superintendent of Westerly Public Schools. This letter was posted to the school’s website and social media accounts Monday morning.