Colby Anderson, left, and Anthony Soscia. Credit: EG News
Colby Anderson was 10 years old when he learned what had happened at Columbine High School in 1999 and it horrified him. He was born in 1998, one year before two Columbine students hunted down and shot their classmates and staff at the Colorado school, killing 13 and injuring 21 more before killing themselves.
Suddenly, in 2008, Anderson understood why there were lockdown drills at school.
“Before that, I knew that lockdowns were meant to keep us safe, but I didn’t know why we did them,” said Anderson, who will be a sophomore at East Greenwich High School this school year. He saw the special on Columbine during April break. When he returned to Hanaford Elementary the following week, he found himself examining the school building with new eyes.
“I walked around and I started to notice the flaws in the building. I was a 10-year-old and I noticed the issues,” he said.
Anderson continued thinking about school safety. After Adam Lanza killed 26 students and adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in December 2012, Anderson and friend Anthony Soscia began to talk about doing something. By then, they were at Cole Middle School but Anderson didn’t feel like they could really act – “Who’s going to listen to a kid? I thought people would think I’m a lunatic.”
Then, this past spring, EGHS embraced the Choose2Matter movement, which encouraged students to identify a problem they are passionate about and work to improve the situation.
Anderson and Soscia had their issue.
Before school got out in June, they had circulated a survey on school safety issues to teachers and other staff at the high school. They got about 50 percent response rate and of those roughly half said they felt positively about the safety procedures in place. The others weren’t as comfortable.
The boys started talking to school and police officials about school safety procedures and reading everything they could find on the topic. They even talked to Michele Gay, parent of a daughter, Josephine Grace, who died at Sandy Hook. Gay has founded Safe and Sound, an organization to improve school safety. Anderson and Soscia toured the schools and learned more than most people want to know about what the town and schools have in place to help in the event of someone attacking the school.
When asked about what their parents think of their work, they both smiled a bit.
“Sometimes they’re surprised by what we know,” said Anderson.
For instance, they have looked at what’s happening in other districts and other states.
In Rhode Island, state law requires schools to conduct monthly emergency/fire drills as well as two evacuation drills and two lockdown drills a year. There are other ways to prepare, including an approach Anderson and Soscia learned about – ALICE (alert-lockdown-inform-counter-evacuation). Locally, teachers in Cranston have undergone ALICE training. While EGHS Resource Officer Stephen Branch agreed that procedures like ALICE are good, he said they more for police than for lay people, especially the “counter” instruction, which means fighting back.
Teachers aren’t trained to fight back, Branch said, so it’s asking a lot. But the ALICE approach is more comprehensive, perhaps, than what’s practiced now, taking into account a variety of responses to any given situation. The FBI’s approach, said Branch, is “run-hide-fight” – get out of the building if you have the chance, hide if you don’t and fight if you have to. Neither ALICE or the FBI approach are sanctioned by the state.
Anderson and Soscia said one of the good things they’ve learned is that response time is fast in East Greenwich – two to three minutes, compared to 6 or 7 minutes in some places in the country.
But they do think there’s room for improvement, in particular in communicating more with students and the community.
“The connection between the staff, who know what the procedures are, and what the students and parents know is too far apart,” said Soscia.
For instance, they said, if there is an attacker at the school, where should parents go? If they rush to the school, they risk slowing down emergency responders. The same goes for 911 calls. If everyone at the school calls 911, the system will be overloaded and it could take longer to find out exactly what’s going on where.
Supt. Mercurio confirmed there’s been no community response system set up.
Another concern Anderson and Soscia have is that the drills, especially the lockdown drills, are not frequent enough to have the procedures down cold.
“It needs to be second nature,” said Anderson.
While all this sounds like a perfect Senior Project, Anderson and Soscia are only sophomores. For them, it’s just what they feel they have to do.
“I don’t want to wait around to make a change and have it be too late,” said Anderson, who likes this quote from Albert Einstein:
“The world is a dangerous place to live, not because of the people who are evil, but because of the people who don’t do anything about it.”
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I could not disagree more about the ALICE training comments. As an employee of the Cranston School Dept., I have personally undergone ALICE training and it had very little to do with teachers fighting back. It is an incredible training and Rhode Island is way behind the rest of the county in investing in it. Every school district should undergo ALICE training immediately. Lockdown drills make our children sitting ducks for shooters who want to get as high a number of victims as possible. We need to wake up and learn better ways to keep our children safe.