Newtown superintendent: Security should be priority

Conn. school administrator speaks at NJASA conference

BY JESSICA D’AMICO
Staff Writer

 Janet Robinson Janet Robinson The news of the school shooting in Newton, Conn., stunned the country on Dec. 14. But before word traveled to the national level, the shock was felt closer to home.

Newtown Superintendent of Schools Janet Robinson didn’t believe it at first when she heard about the shooting from her secretary that fateful morning. But after receiving confirmation from police, she sprung into action.

“Anyone who is a superintendent isn’t going to stay in [his or her] office,” Robinson said. “I got in my car, and I drove there.”

Robinson shared her account of that day’s events during a March 13 press conference held as part of the New Jersey Association of School Administrators (NJASA) School Security Conference at the Pines Manor in Edison. She served as the keynote speaker for the full-day event. Aside from the 20- minute press session with Robinson and selected officials, the news media were prohibited from covering the conference.

“There isn’t a lot that we could have done differently,” the Newtown superintendent told reporters about lessons learned from the mass murder at the Sandy Hook Elementary School, where a gunman shot his way in and killed 20 children and six staff members before turning the gun on himself.

In the immediate aftermath of the tragedy, teachers were able to keep children calm by having them sing songs and engage in other activities, according to Robinson.

“The teachers had done a beautiful job,” she said.

In addition to preventing panic among students, she said, teachers responded to the attack by calling on their previous training for such anomalous events. Teachers remembered drill instructions to lock classroom doors and turn off lights.

“They had had a lockdown drill not long before that,” Robinson said.

According to Robinson, every school district should have a security committee that would put plans in place for potential threats, gleaning knowledge from local police and emergency responders, along with others in the community.

“It’s important that when we do a security plan, that it doesn’t sit on the shelf,” she said.

Richard Bozza, executive director of the NJASA, said school security is better in New Jersey than in other states, but there is room for improvement.

“New Jersey is certainly well-prepared in many respects, but certainly not prepared enough,” he said.

Bozza added that the New Jersey Governor’s School Security Task Force will soon convene again to find ways to improve that preparedness. Technology plays a role, with computers, smart phones and tablet applications providing communication in critical situations, according to Bozza. “That’s a piece of it; it’s not a preventive measure,” he said.

Robinson said anything that improves communication and delays an attacker is of value.

“I think it’s important to delay entry so the first responders have more time,” she said.

The shooter, Adam Lanza, gained entry to the school by shooting through a window, and some type of reinforcement to the glass may have delayed his access, she said.

Still, it’s important to strike a balance, according to Robinson.

“I think as a reaction, people do overreach,” she said. “We don’t want to turn our schools into fortresses.” Although Newtown schools have a regular police presence, they are not equipped with armed guards, she said. Whether to post armed officers in schools is a decision each community must make for itself, she said.

“There is a point in time where parents — or [even] teachers — aren’t going to be comfortable without that,” Robinson said, adding that there is then a lingering question of how long to keep such security in place. “We have to remember [that] this is a balance between security and the freedom for children in a learning environment,” Bozza added.

At some point, determining the actions taken comes down to the comfort level of parents, Robinson said.

“The children take their cues from the adults,” Robinson said. “If adults are anxious, they’re going to be more anxious. Students can be very resilient when the adults they’re dealing with are comfortable.”

In Newtown, any level of comfort will undoubtedly take some time to get back. Robinson said the district expects a decision by spring on whether students will go back to Sandy Hook Elementary School. In talks with the community on the matter, she said, opinions have run the gamut.

In the meantime, the Newtown community is working on healing. Resources such as counseling remain available, and community events seek “to get laughter back for the kids.”

Although Robinson declined to comment on how the parents of Sandy Hook students are faring, she said she remains in touch with them.

She testified before Congress in January to encourage lawmakers to pass the Federal Assault Weapons Ban, a measure that passed the Senate Judiciary Committee on March 14.

Robinson is slated to leave the Newtown district to fill the top spot in the school district of Stratford, Conn., in July. But she will not leave behind the impact of the shooting or the drive to prevent such atrocities in the future.

“I see my job as protecting children, and I will advocate against assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition,” Robinson said.