Schools mindful of safety, mental health

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MANCHESTER — As school resumed across Bennington County this week, educators sought to reassure students and parents that student safety and prevention of violence remains their top priority.

For most local students, Monday was the first day back in class since a Poultney teenager was arrested and charged with plotting a school shooting at Fair Haven High School.

The uncovering of that alleged plot came days after 17 students and educators were killed in a school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

In a letter to parents published to social media over the weekend, Bennington-Rutland Supervisory Union superintendent Jacqueline Wilson said the BRSU schools "take student safety very seriously and we are continuously revising our school-based safety plans to take stay current." She said the BRSU's principals would meet as a group to "collectively revisit our safety plans and discuss possible revisions and supports."

"This week's tragedy in Florida has shaken us all. Unfortunately, these events are occurring with greater frequency and they are of grave concern to all of us," Wilson said.

On Monday morning, during Burr and Burton Academy's weekly assembly, assistant head of school Meg Kenny led a moment of silence for the Parkland shooting victims.

"Burr and Burton supports student voice and applauds all efforts to engage positively in the debate and to show solidarity with the students of Parkland," Kenny said Monday. "We need to hear your voices. And, we want to support all our students to find their voices and to engage with the issues all while maintaining a respectful, orderly and safe environment that is not disruptive to learning and holds true to our core values."

Kenny held a meeting Tuesday to begin planning efforts for participation in the national student walk-out planned for March 14. About 30 students and six faculty members attended, and another group was expected to travel to Montpelier on Thursday to attend a state Senate hearing on background checks.

"No decisions were made — it was really a sharing of thoughts and ideas on school safety and how students can use their voices for change," she said of Tuesday's meeting.

Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union Superintendent Jim Culkeen said that the supervisory union's safety committee will meet on Tuesday to discuss the Marjory Stoneman Douglas and Fair Haven incidents. Every SVSU school has its own safety committee, which meets twice monthly, he said. School Safety Coordinator Victor Milani will be speaking to each school board at their March meetings in light of the shooting and averted shooting.

Starting in January 2017, said Culkeen, Milani has overseen a safety assessment of every building in the SVSU. Reception staff have already undergone training on how to interact with suspicious individuals and about controlling access to the building, and the plan is to next focus on getting every SVSU faculty and staff member trained in risk assessment. Each school has a newly-designed emergency plan, and many safety improvements were made to the buildings last few years, including the installation of cameras and re-designs of the reception areas.

BBA Headmaster Mark Tashjian asked students to always come forward and make a "statement of care" if they become aware that a fellow student is showing signs of distress. If you see something, say something, he told students and teachers.

"We have the ability to look out for each other," he said. "If you're worried about a friend, or about anyone, it doesn't do any good unless you say something."

In a letter to BBA parents, Tashjian said the school has been conducting lockdown and lock-in drills for several years, the most recent of which was conducted two weeks ago. The school has also installed campus-wide communication systems, works with law enforcement and has a safety committee that meets regularly, he said.

"Throughout our planning and deliberations, one conclusion is clear: our greatest defense is the fact that we are a caring, supportive community. Burr and Burton is a school that thrives on the rapport created among students, between students and teachers, and among all of us as colleagues and citizens," Tashjian wrote. "These connections help prevent anyone from feeling overly isolated, and they are the best early warning system possible; we can keep an eye out for each other, and we can provide mental health services for those in need."

Tashjian also advised families that if they have concerns about a student or an adult's mental state, "it is imperative that you notify us at school and, depending on the nature of the concern, notify the police."

Culkeen said that he would like to see more guidance from the state, either the Agency of Education or the legislature, on how schools should handle students who have been identified as a potential threat to their peers. "I would like to see more clarified guidance from the state," he said, adding that a standardized procedure would help administrators toe the line between fulfilling their duties to protect students' right to educate, while also keeping schools safe.

National student walk-outs are planned for March 14 and April 20, the latter of which will mark the 19th anniversary of the Columbine shooting. Culkeen said that the SVSU administration is aware of these plans, and is working with a number of organizations to craft its response, describing the administration as "certainly sympathetic," and "willing to talk" with students about the walk-outs. He said that Mount Anthony Union High School administrators would be meeting with student groups in the coming weeks to discuss the situation.

While the Fair Haven plot was halted before a tragedy could occur, it could have a significant impact on gun laws, school security policy and mental health access in Vermont. Gov. Phil Scott, a Republican who has supported gun rights in the past, said he was "shaken" by the details of the alleged plot and that his positions have "evolved" as a result.

Last week, as Democrat and Progressive leaders in Montpelier called for action on the state's gun laws, Scott ordered review of security procedures at schools, and expressed willingness to work with the Legislature on gun legislation, including universal background checks.

Reach Greg Sukiennik at 802-490-6000 or gsukiennik@manchesterjournal.com.


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