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Topsham-area school district holds safety forums amid rising threats to students

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Maine School Administrative District 75 recently hosted two forums to explain steps it is taking to keep children safe in an academic year marked by an unusually high number of threats to local students.

The forums, held Jan. 22 and 30, had a secondary purpose of teaching parents the proper way for them to respond in the event of a lockdown or other crisis-prevention measure taken at their child’s school. SAD 75 covers Harpswell, Topsham, Bowdoin and Bowdoinham.

At the forum on Tuesday, Jan. 30, held at Williams-Cone Elementary School in Topsham, Bowdoinham Community School Principal Chris Lajoie introduced the topic by acknowledging how challenging and emotionally fraught it can be to discuss training children how to deal with serious threats.

“So, another function of this forum tonight is to hear from people about what do they feel about ways we can train and practice and drill with students, what people are comfortable with, what feels appropriate,” Lajoie said, adding that the district’s training methods are research-based and conducted in close cooperation with local law enforcement.

The school year started violently for SAD 75 with an alleged incident in which a student at Mt. Ararat High School in Topsham drew a gun on another student during a confrontation at the Topsham Fair in August.

Since then, local students have endured multiple bomb threats, one of which required students at Mt. Ararat Middle School in Topsham to be evacuated to the nearby high school.

On top of that, a Bowdoin man perpetrated a mass shooting on Oct. 25, killing 18 people in Lewiston and remaining at large for 48 hours before he was found dead by apparent suicide. Area schools were closed for two days because of the incident.

A week later, SAD 75 schools were placed on temporary lockdown on Nov. 2 in response to alleged threats of gun violence by a Caribou man who was later arrested.

The district also has seen an unusually high number of incidents this school year involving students committing or threatening violence, school officials said. In September, a group of concerned parents urged the district to take additional measures to combat what they described as “escalating violence” involving students.

“So far this year, we’ve had over 60 suspensions, 55 in-school suspensions and 12 threat assessments, which is really a lot,” SAD 75 Superintendent of Schools Heidi O’Leary told the school board at a meeting in mid-December. A threat assessment is a proactive approach that focuses on early identification and prevention of threatening student behavior such as bullying.

O’Leary said the district planned to hire a crisis intervention specialist “to get some of these behaviors and crisis situations under control.” SAD 75 posted a job listing for the position in late January.

The superintendent also has said the district is considering additional security measures such as adding metal detectors and/or another resource officer at the high school, adding that SAD 75 would continue to review its policies to ensure they are “up to date and responsive to the needs of our students and the community.”

At the Jan. 30 forum, school officials went over the methods they are using to train and drill students in how to respond to threats of violence, as well as the approach educators are taking to identify and defuse potential threats.

Students have been learning what to do in the event of a lockdown, evacuation or shelter-in-place order from administrators, leaders of the forum said. For example, kids are being trained to go to the nearest secure area, lock the door, silence all phones and other devices, turn out the lights and prepare to barricade doors during a lockdown.

Woodside Elementary School Principal Richard Dedek II explained that district students also are receiving “options-based training” that teaches them how to make snap decisions about the safest action to take in a threatening situation. Such training is also commonly referred to as “run, hide, fight.”

“It represents a real departure from the way we used to train in schools,” Dedek said, which focused on students memorizing specific actions rather than making judgments in real time.

District personnel also have been learning what are known as Comprehensive School Threat Assessment Guidelines, a set of procedures and principles designed to guide educators, administrators and school safety professionals in conducting threat assessments in educational settings.

Developed by Dewey Cornell, a forensic and clinical psychologist and professor of education at the University of Virginia, the guidelines are touted as being based on extensive research and field testing in schools.

“The purpose of it is to help us prevent any violence before it happens and resolve conflicts that may be coming about between students, peer to peer, or even between students and staff,” said Woodside Elementary Assistant Principal Amy Heimerl.

The guidelines create a process to assess what was said and to whom, interview those involved and decide what further actions must be taken to resolve the conflict, Heimerl said.

“I know building admin have all been trained, as well as … all the safety team (members) at Woodside,” she said. “We’re in the process of training not only admin but the safety teams across the district.”

School officials at the forums also touched on steps parents should follow during a school lockdown or other security-related incident. They handed out fliers titled “Emergency Response Guide for Parents,” which stress that parents shouldn’t come to their child’s school and attempt to pick them up during such an event.

“If you are a parent, your natural instinct is to want to go to the location and get your children,” O’Leary told the audience of roughly a dozen parents at the Jan. 30 forum. “Pause, if you can, (and) know that we have a plan in place to keep your kids as safe as we possibly can.”

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