The shooting rampage at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, that killed 26 people-including 20 children-is reverberating even in the CNMI and the Public School System, as an educational institution, can't help but feel a connection, said Education Commissioner Rita A. Sablan, Ed.D.
“When I first heard of the horrific tragedy, it was really difficult for me to understand why something like that would happen, especially to very young children. I couldn't help but think about the situation like this, if-and I hope it will never happen in CNMI,” said Sablan yesterday.
She extended PSS' condolences to the families of the victims, while keeping in mind that the incident should serve as a cautionary tale for PSS.
In the first order of business on Monday, Sablan discussed with her leadership team student safety not just on campus but even for students on their way to school and as they return home.
She ordered all schools to revisit emergency drills that were just completed in September and to make sure operating procedures are constantly reiterated to everyone on campus.
The PSS' crisis response team has also been made available to all schools since Monday to provide assistance to any concern that students may have about the Connecticut tragedy.
Sablan said that PSS had received some calls for assistance from some schools. “There have been calls and we made ourselves available to provide the needed assistance for our students,” she said.
In the wake of the tragedy, Sablan said that some schools reactivated their counseling day, while PSS passed out some guidelines whether or not the issue should be talked about with students.
“We also asked our schools to give our parents assurance that PSS is definitely taking care and always doing its best to ensure the safety of students. So we're doing some monitoring now,” she said.
Sablan said that PSS is also looking at designating January as Safe Schools Month and will work with the Department of Homeland Security and police authorities in conducting emergency drills for fire, tsunami, intruder, and lockdown.
PSS is also reviewing the scheduled hours of school gates and plans to implement stricter rules on when the gates will be opened and closed. The objective is to minimize the traffic in and out of campus.
Next week, PSS will also conduct a special emergency training for all its vendors-water, food, maintenance, supplies-to make sure they also know what to do during emergency situations.
For Gregorio T. Camacho Elementary School principal Charlotte Camacho, the Connecticut incident was not only shocking but it made her express concerns about the security condition of GTC. GTC is one of two public schools that do not have fully fenced campuses. It has no gates and lacks security personnel and equipment.
GTC is home to 204 students from kindergarten to sixth grade.
Camacho pointed out the need for the school to constantly be reminded of safety procedures, including regular conduct of training and emergency drills.
Last Monday, the PSS emergency management team conducted a site visit and assessment on schools such as GTC as part of efforts to prioritize a security plan for all schools.
Hopwood Junior High School principal Jonas Barcinas expressed the same worries and concerns.
“As the principal of Hopwood, I am also worried and concerned about the safety of all our students and staff because of our campus setting. Our fences can easily be accessed by any intruder by climbing or hurting the children while they are out in PE, lunch or break time where all the students are around that area playing or resting. This is a concern for me unless I hire more [security] guards to watch every corner of the facility to prevent any intruder from attacking,” he said.
Due to budget constraints, PSS was not able to hire more security aides for all schools.
“As a school, we do have our emergency procedures and we've been conducting drills with the staff and students to ensure that we know what to do in the event of emergency or disaster. Although we feel ready, you never know how the scenario may be at any day,” Barcinas added.
Hopwood plans to buy a public address system for each classroom for better communication, especially in emergency situations.