The Safest Spaces

Local schools plan to make buildings more secure


In an ideal world, summer is a time when schools make improvements to their facilities in order to better their educational offerings. Last summer’s major construction on the Lincoln School that created their STEAM Hub for Girls is a great example. An undertaking of that size took planning, dedication, time – the grand opening event just happened last month – and money. Most of the time, however, schools just use summer as a time to fix things that have been outdated or fallen into disrepair. To aid in this endeavor, Governor Gina Raimondo’s Rhode Island School Building Task Force is dedicating $500 million of state general obligation bonds over 10 years.

Unfortunately, the specter of the Parkland shootings looms large this summer, and schools continue to react in various ways to keep their communities safe.

The shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida took place in February, and every day since has brought protests, political debate, and countless editorials. The incident took the lives of 17 students and educators and has, once again, brought the topic of school safety into the general consciousness. Yet all this discussion hasn’t stopped acts of violence within schools. March’s shooting at Maryland’s Great Mills High School was ended by a resource officer after two students had already been wounded; and April’s Forest High School shooting in Florida, which occurred just prior to a walk-out commemorating the anniversary of the 1999 Columbine High School shooting, was again stopped by a resource officer after one student was injured.

Locally, as of an April meeting of the Rhode Island House of Representatives, only one-third of school districts had submitted required school safety plans to the state’s School Safety Committee. But that doesn’t necessarily mean schools aren’t taking safety and security seriously.

North Providence schools already have a “Guardian Indoor Active Shooter Detection System,” which is tuned to the acoustic pitch of a gunshot and immediately alerts the North Providence Police Department. Meanwhile, Warwick schools utilize the Rave Panic Button, a mobile app for teachers’ cell phones tied directly to emergency services and Warwick Police. These systems, while effectively utilizing technology to decrease response time, are not designed for prevention.

Westerly High School, however, instituted a badge enter system in March, which helps limit access to the building. And within Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza’s “All In” initiative, 41 public schools and two charter schools will be dividing $400 million over 10 years for repair and modernization, much of it aimed to increase student safety. Updates are school specific and include fixing security cameras, installing new ones, cutting back shrubs that could conceal potential attackers, and addressing areas of congestion in buildings (like crowded hallways) that could lead to altercations.

Back at Stoneman Douglas in Parkland, administrators have resorted to transparent backpacks, in spite of student outcry. Over in Illinois, Democratic lawmakers proposed an increase in school funding, provided schools replace on-site law enforcement officers with social workers, who are trained to address underlying mental health issues. In the end, there is probably no single precaution that will ensure an absolutely safe school community; and problems of violence certainly won’t be eradicated over a single summer of planning and revamping. But it’s an undertaking worth any effort.