DRACUT, Mass. – Scared and saddened by the horrific elementary-school massacre in Connecticut, Vera McDermott is not returning to her fifth-grade classes at Englesby Intermediate School in Dracut until at least after New Year’s. Until then, the Dracut 10-year-old is working on what she hopes will be the most important homework assignment of her, her three younger siblings’ and millions of other American students’ lives.
Vera, with help from her father, Tony McDermott, has created a website, www.wedemandsafeschools.com, and Facebook page, www.facebook.com/WeDemandSafeSchools, asking visitors to sign an online petition that will be sent to the U.S. Department of Education demanding enhanced physical security at each school-building entrance in the United States.
“I came home from school and the news was on, and my mom showed me,” Vera said of how she first learned of what happened in Newtown. “It made me scared to go back to school. I was scared that another person would do it.”
For now, Vera is too frightened to return to school. Her father says they are taking it day by day.
So rather than remain scared and do nothing, Vera asked her father what she could do to improve her school’s safety, she said.
“So now we’re building a website to make it safer,” said Vera. “I want the schools to have bullet-proof windows, and security cameras everywhere.”
Undeterred by the potential cost – which Tony McDermott estimated at $200,000 to retrofit each school with a more layered security system – he and his daughter hope to jump-start a nationwide movement to dramatically increase school security, beginning in Dracut, said Tony McDermott, who owns Critical Clouds, a highly specialized security-software company based out of his home.
“As parents, we find Vera’s efforts quite amazing,” said Tony McDermott, speaking also for his wife, Leslie. “She needed a place to focus her sadness and anger. We’re very proud of her.”
As of Tuesday, 20 people had signed the McDermott family’s online petition to be sent to the U.S. Department of Education, stating that “our children’s schools need to be hardened against attacks.”
McDermott, a Montana native whose mother was a teacher for 35 years and whose father was a schoolteacher, principal and superintendent for more than 30 years, said he has formed a team of fellow security professionals to assist Vera in her efforts, including a former 25-year FBI shooting expert, and Ron Bears, former director of security for the U.S. Treasury Department and Secret Service headquarters.
McDermott also pledged to spearhead the fundraising drive that would be needed to make safety alterations to all of Dracut’s school buildings, including the under-construction Dracut High School, and planned $65 million renovation of Greater Lowell Technical High School.
A more layered security system, alterations to windows, and increased video-monitoring capabilities are the keys to improving school safety, McDermott said.
“We’re devising a blueprint that our local schools can use to become safer, and we anticipate the costs to be significant and realize a blueprint without money will go nowhere,” said McDermott. “If we, as a community, can’t come up with a couple hundred grand to retrofit each school to put these (safety) mechanisms in place for the kids, then our priorities are wrong.”
In the next few months, Vera said she plans to fly to Washington, D.C., with her father to speak to the U.S. Department of Education about this, as well as with Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick and the local school administration.
“She’ll seek advice and start the process of raising the money necessary to implement a plan, once its approved by the administration and town,” said Tony McDermott. “She also wanted to give students and parents from other schools across the country a (Web) portal to set up their own school’s account to do the same.”
McDermott contacted Dracut school officials who were in the process of communicating with the family to discuss their ideas, Englesby Principal Maria McGuinness said.
On Monday, a parent from Arizona became the first beyond Massachusetts to sign up his school district for a safer building fundraising project on Vera’s www.wedemandsaferschools website, he said.
While his sister was busy on her computer hoping to make the world a less scary and safer place, younger brother Ian McDermott, 7, busied himself making his home more people-friendly.
As Tony McDermott looked out the window of his home office Monday, he spotted Ian in the snowy backyard in the rain — dressed only in a tank top, shorts, winter boots and scally cap — putting all of his and his 5-year-old brother, Tristan’s, plastic toy guns into a trash bag.
“I’m going to destroy them,” Ian told his father.