Wednesday, February 20, 2013

One Letter Can Go a Long Way

I have had an interesting and informative couple of months engaging different experts in conversations about our town’s school safety protocols and gun safety. For those interested in where my January letter to the Needham Times has taken me, I would like to describe my efforts here. I would guess that similar experiences are being logged around the country, so even if you are not from Needham, MA, you may be interested in this journey. 

My letter which was printed in the January 3rd edition of the Needham Times was shorter than, but similar in theme to, the post I included here on December 19, 2012. The letter included a link to an online survey to gauge the interest of readers. The response to that letter was overwhelmingly in favor of a discussion or coalition of related groups to discuss improvements in Needham's school safety protocols and access to/awareness of mental health support systems.

With collected survey responses as support, I contacted our School Committee members, our Youth Services Director, and our school Superintendent. I have had productive conversations with the principals of my local elementary and middle schools and I was invited to participate in their Health and Safety Committee meetings. I also met with our school superintendent and the director of our Youth Services organization who were both very welcoming of a dialogue and gave me confidence that our students' safety is of the utmost importance and that it is in good hands. Regular review of safety protocols and of mental health service offerings is invaluable and is occurring here.

The high school principal and I had a productive email conversation where we both learned from each other. Specifics shared with me by the principal may be of interest to readers

"...we work with the town on a regular basis to review our safety protocols and procedures. We routinely meet with the Public Facilities, Police, and Fire Departments to review and update our security procedures and protocols. For example, the building-based Health and Safety Committee meets to monitor and address emergent facilities and safety issues, and I meet with Local Emergency Planning Committee, which is made up of all town chiefs (police, fire, etc.) and department heads, to plan for different types of emergency situations that might involve the high school. 

"Earlier this year we began the process of updating our master key system to enhance our lock down protocols. Over the coming summer we will purchase and install a new digital radio system that will provide all offices, administrators, and department heads with campus-wide instant communication access in the event of an emergency. We have also planned to install a card/key fob access entry system for faculty and staff over the next 1-2 years which will further restrict access to the building during school hours. In addition, this will allow us to prevent doors from being propped open and to track more closely the comings and goings of individuals as they enter and exit the building."

I see three take-aways from my efforts:
  1. My initial plan was to help bring together various expert groups to have a dialogue that would be beneficial to improving the safety of our town's children and all residents. I feel now that some of those conversations are already happening. Although the conversations are not taking place in one central forum, I understand that they are taking place through various committees and relationships. The tragedy in Newtown has heightened all related groups' interest in providing safe school environments for our students. I feel confident that the best people are staying tuned in to the problems and I will continue to offer my help as a liaison between parents and Health & Safety Committees.
  2. The conversations I have had with two principals have resulted in improved guidelines and execution of safety protocols at those two schools. I understand the steps that have been taken at the High School in recent years to improve student safety and my concern about unlocked doors was listened to and will be addressed as soon as possible. None of the schools will ever have perfectly executed safety protocols, every minute of every day, but the plans and intentions are in place to make the schools secure. As visitors of our schools, we have a responsibility to adhere strictly to the security guidelines and to report security breaches when they happen. Our school superintendent is considering increasing the frequency and methods of communicating school safety protocols and improvements – look for his updates on his Needham Channel broadcasts, in the annual Needham Public Schools Performance Report, and possibly in other ways.
  3. I have been invited to assist one of our ministers from the Congregational Church of Needham in organizing a public forum. The forum’s agenda is under development but it will aim to address gun safety as a matter of public health. It should be a very helpful event for our town and I hope to add some value to it and to others like it. The rough goals of the event are:
  • To raise awareness in the community about the presence and reality of guns in our midst
  • To educate ourselves about gun safety as a matter of public health

Lastly, over the past two months, I have come to understand the importance of speaking up for something, even if it seems as if one voice cannot make a difference. The letters I and many others have written in the wake of the Newtown, CT tragedy have started a chain of events in the right direction toward tightening of gun control, increasing gun safety and improving public health. Letters written for publications can inspire readers to act in unanticipated, helpful ways. The letters we write to elected officials do matter. Our government representatives are getting the message – from many. I encourage everyone who is concerned about assault weapons in our communities and loopholes in our gun laws to take the time to make your views known to your elected officials. Email makes it so easy to contact them. If you have already contacted one or more, do it again. Sincerity and frequency matters. Keep repeating the message in order to compete with those emailing and calling with an opposing message.

When a mentally unstable gunman decides to enter a building – whether it be a school, a movie theater, a mall, or a workplace - he will most likely succeed. The best way to minimize those occurrences and the number of resulting casualties is to decrease the accessibility of guns, ban assault weapons and their large-capacity magazines, and strengthen our mental health support systems. The forum I describe above is a small step toward raising the public's consciousness of the prevalence of guns in our community. I hope that from it will come further action by individuals to prevent gun violence. This is a complicated problem that needs to be addressed from many angles. A simple, sincere letter can make a difference, even from one person.

p.s. Please do not comment if your comment includes an unrelated link. I review all comments before they are posted and do not post ones containing unrelated links. Thank you!

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