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In Western Mass., Educators Take On Responsibility – And Weight – Of School Security

Students across the country will walk out of class Wednesday morning to mark one month since the Parkland shooting, and to call for safer schools.

In the past decade, it’s become the norm for students to practice lockdowns to protect against an intruder with a gun. Now some western Massachusetts educators say they want to do more to secure their schools.

'Hardening the target'

At Mohawk Trail Middle School in Shelburne Falls, Massachusetts, students grab books, slam lockers and chat each other up before class. Superintendent Michael Buoniconti spends a lot of time thinking about how to protect them.

"Layers of defense is what I want to get at. What can we do to make it more and more difficult to get inside our schools to cause harm?" he said in an interview this month.

With 28 years in the military (he still serves in the Air Force reserve) Buoniconti uses phrases like “layers of defense” and “hardening the target” to describe policies to keep school children safe. An extra layer are fire doors, just inside the locked exterior doors. With the flip of a switch, they can block hallways leading to classrooms.

"They were really designed in the event of a fire, but it also happens to help us in this kind of a threat as well," he said.

This is one example of how educators in the region are coming up with ways to protect students in older school buildings that weren’t built to be fortresses, but to be open and inviting to students to learn.

A normal part of school is active shooter drills, known as lockdowns. In a classroom, Buoniconti pointed out the big first-floor windows that look out on a blanket of snow. They were decorated with paper snowflakes, and also have shades – essential to keep a gunman from looking in.

"Those shades would be pulled down and the kids and the teacher would move out of line of site from the glass in the doorway here," Buoniconti said.

The idea is lock the door, darken the room and be quiet so a shooter won’t find you.

Staying 'mobile'

Even younger children are trained. Colrain Central School has only about one hundred fifteen students. It’s right next to a farm. Still, Principal Amy Looman says teachers are vigilant.

"They know who should be here and who shouldn’t be here and they don’t hesitate -- if they see something -- to ask questions," she said.

Looman said that during their lockdown drills, everyone stays on their feet.

"So that you can be mobile," she said. "Back when we very first started lockdown drills, it was 'Everybody sit down, quiet, still, tucked away.' Now we have come to realize the need to be able to move if necessary."

'It might happen to us one day'

"You gotta stir the grits, so they don’t stick!" said Paul Lumpkin.

It’s breakfast time in Lumpkin’s home in Springfield, a city with about 26,000 public school students. Three of them are his children: Key-Aurah, Paul Jabari (known as PJ) and nine-year-old Beautie, who explained how her school practices lockdown drills.

Beautie Swinton, Paul Jabari (PJ) Lumpkin, Key-Aurah Lumpkin and their father Paul Lumpkin, in Springfield, Massachusetts
Credit Nancy Eve Cohen / NEPR
Beautie Swinton, Paul Jabari (PJ) Lumpkin, Key-Aurah Lumpkin and their father Paul Lumpkin, in Springfield, Massachusetts.

"We have a little sign with a smile face and it says, 'Safety,'" Beautie said. "So, we just go stand over there where it’s quiet and it's where the cabinets are."

Beautie said if a classmate makes noise, it could put all the students in danger .

"It might happen to us one day, because what if somebody got expelled and they came all the way to our school to get revenge," she said.

The what-ifs are there for older students, too. Key-Aurah, who’s 13, said kids don’t always know if it’s just a drill.

"It’s kind of scary because when they go to rattle the doors, you don’t know if it is someone real or just the principals, but otherwise it’s fine," she said.

For some, a bigger concern is outside the schools

Key-Aurah’s school has a metal detector and a police officer. Her father, who works for the teacher’s union, said Springfield does a good job keeping students safe -- in school, at least.

"I think the bigger concern considering where we live, it’s the outside of school -- the gun violence," Lumpkin said. "It affects us more outside of school, particularly in this community."

Audrey Murph-Brown, a Springfield school social worker, agrees. She said the mass shootings tend to happen in suburban and rural schools. In Springfield, she said schools are a safe haven. Even the gangs respect them.

Audrey Murph-Brown is a school socialworker at Mary M. Lynch Elementary School in Springfield, Massachusetts
Credit Nancy Eve Cohen / NEPR
Audrey Murph-Brown is a school social worker at Mary M. Lynch Elementary School in Springfield, Massachusetts.

"You go by any public school in Springfield [and] you’re not going to find gangs on that property," Murph-Brown said. "You're not going to find people in the corner dealing drugs. Those unsavory individuals are staying away. When they see those teachers come out, they're like, ‘Yo -- get outta her way!’ They’re not messing with Miss Murph."

'Teachers die in these shootings, too'

Other educators said what they worry most about are children who don’t get the services they need and who may become disruptive or violent.

BethAnn Albro-Fisher is a reading teacher at the Philip G. Coburn Elementary School in West Springfield. She wonders who these armed shooters once were.

"That child who ends up bringing a gun and taking their rage and their sadness and frustration out on other people, what have we done for them up until that point if they have been in our schools for many years? That is something I think about," she said. 

Albro-Fisher said she tries not to let her students know, but she finds the drills terrifying.

"Teachers die in these shootings, too," Albro-Fisher said. "And after the Florida shooting, it was the first time my daughters asked me, 'Mom, what would you do? Where do you go?' I protect my students, right? I mean, that is what the teachers are doing."

Up in Colrain, that’s what principal Amy Looman said she would do.

"It’s not a comfortable feeling, but I know without hesitation, that would be my primary concern is making sure my kids -- these kids, my kids -- were safe," Looman said.

Neither Looman – nor any of the people interviewed for this story – would support giving teachers guns. But if a gunman were to get into a classroom, school superintendent Michael Buoniconti said his teachers -- and students -- are trained to fight back.

"Use any and everything at your disposal to physically disarm the person," Buoniconti said, such as a chair, heavy book or a laptop. "Overwhelm the person with numbers. It takes courage. I mean, that’s where it’s scary at that point, right?"

"It’s the world we live in," he added. "We just need to do this."

Nancy Eve Cohen is a senior reporter focusing on Berkshire County. Earlier in her career she was NPR’s Midwest editor in Washington, D.C., managing editor of the Northeast Environmental Hub and recorded sound for TV networks on global assignments, including the war in Sarajevo and an interview with Fidel Castro.
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