Paying respect, being heard and working on solution

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WORKING TOGETHER — Students and administrators engaged in thoughtful discussion about school safety March 15, and learned from each other how to better protect students and staff. Superintendent of Schools Rick Colpitts listens as a student shares concerns. (Photo by A.M. Sheehan)

PARIS — At 10 a.m. on Thursday, March 15 – one day late because of the snowstorm – approximately 200 of the 1,100 student body at Oxford Hills Comprehensive High School walked quietly out the side door and assembled at the bus loop. Administrators including Superintendent of Schools Rick Colpitts, Assistant Superintendent Patrick Hartnett and Principal Ted Moccia, stood quietly to the side.

The area was surround with security measures taken on behalf of the students. Paris Fire Department blocked the Rt. 26 entrance and others blocked the Brown Street Entrance. In between sat vehicles from the Oxford County Sheriff and State Police. Police chiefs from Norway, Paris and Oxford were there to lend a hand. Two school buses blocked the entrance to the bus loop.

The students could barely be seen from the public ways. However, lending their support, a number of adults gathered outside the fence.

For 17 minutes, the students stood quietly chatting and honoring the 17 killed last month in Parkland, Florida.

At the end of the 17 minutes, students began quietly filing back into the high school building. Some went back to class, some went to their lunch period.

About 30 or so remained outside and after a brief discussion with administrators, where they were told that if they did not return to class they would be disciplined, they raised signs and partook in chants aimed at gun control and the NRA.

Chants such as “Hey, Hey NRA, how many kids will you kill today?” drifted over the collection of bystanders on the other side of the fence who didn’t respond but listened to the voices of youth.

Another 17 minutes went by at which point Moccia told them they needed to return to school so that everyone protecting them could get on with their day. The students lowered their signs and proceeded toward the door.

“Don’t forget to leave your names at the office,” Moccia called after them. This was for the in-house suspension which is the penalty for cutting class.

Panel

Following the walkout (s) panelists and students gathered in the Forum to discuss school safety. Panelists included Moccia, Paris Police Chief Hartley “Skip” Mowatt, Oxford Police Chief Jon Tibbetts, school Guidance Director Nancy McClean, and School Resource Officer Tim Holland and Colpitts.

Handfuls of students came and went over the three lunch periods so the panel became more of a cirle that was like a discussion in the living room instead of a formal event.

Students were respectful and polite. Such things as “I saw on Facebook that the Maine National Guard volunteered to come to schools for free and guard them” in uniform and armed to which another student responded that seeing them would be stressful and a reminder that something might happen.

They discussed reporting bullying and how they could change the level of discomfort students felt with authority.

Administrators told them there was already a “tip” area on the district website. This appeared to be news to students.

Tibbetts suggested, “If you see a student sitting alone, go sit with them, say ‘hi, how ya doin’… I like your sweatshirt’ … that does more than a million dollars.”

McLean told students, “We need help to combat bullying.”

“You guys have more power than we do … we can do a lot but you have far more power.”

One student noted that she was mentally ill noting that mental illness was not always obvious.

Administrators told students there were dozens of cameras in the high school which would enable them to identify a threat and know how to deal with it.

Colpitts lamented that school buildings were built to protect students for what was, then, the biggest perceived threat: fire.

“They are like a sieve, there are numerous exits.”

The panelists and students discussed how students texting students to let them in doors that were supposed to be kept locked, exacerbated the problem of securing the school.

One student told administrators he thought they “should practice” the protocols in the event of an active shooter.

Colpitts noted that making the school buildings safe was an ongoing conversation and when plans were decided they would go to the taxpayers.

Administrators were asked by one student, “If something were to happen right now, what would happen?”

“We have lockdown procedures and safety protocols but we can’t talk about them,” responded McLean. She explained the protocols were not pulic information for obvious reasons.

“And we have action plans,” Tibbetts added regarding law enforcement.

“I call dispatch and tell them we have an active shooter and within seconds more than 100 officers are notified on duty or off.”

He went on to explain that all local law enforcement would be there within seconds and those further away, within minutes.

Administrators were asked by some students to install metal detectors. However other students didn’t like the idea. The reality of metal detectors and backpack searches would be the lengthening of the school day by an hour or two, noted Colpitts, as even with mutiple detectors, processing 1,100 students plus staff is time consuming as anyone who has stood in the security line at an airport can attest.

One unnerving thing came out during the discussions as a student told administrators that her friend had heard another student say “I could take my gun from my car right now … .”

Administrators were visibly upset hearing that and asked the student to have her friend come see them. They pointed out that this was what they meant when they said students had the most power – but they had to communicate.

Colpitts asked students if there were other “holes” they needed to look at to make them feel safer.

Students said they want an anonymous tip line, better communication and to be taught how to protect themselves.

“A lot of this doesn’t cost money,” said one student.

“My belief,” said McLean, “is that we can have a bigger impact on how we treat each other – want to stop a bully? Befriend a bully.”

As students came and left the arena, some concerns and responses were repeated, and new ones brought to the table. But the overall message was the same.

“It breaks our hearts,” said Tibbetts, “that our kids have to be afraid to go to school.”

asheehan@sunmediagroup.net

 

A.M. Sheehan

WALKING OUT — At 10 a.m. March 15, approximately 200 students walked out of classes at the Oxford Hills Comprehensive High School in Paris to take part in a national school walkout scheduled for March 14, one month after the Parkland, Florida school shootings. The walkout lasted 17 minutes, one minute for each person killed n Parkland. Students stood quietly chatting for the 17 minutes and then most proceeded back into school. Superintendent of Schools Rick Colpitts and Assistant Superintendent Patrick Hartnett stood alongside high School Principal Ted Moccia chatting with the students.

A.M. Sheehan

CIVIL DISOBEDIENCE — A handful of students remained outside after the initial 17-minute vigil to protest what they perceive as the cause of school shootings. Their message was directed at the NRA.