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Security spat

TURNERS FALLS — One school administrator’s safety concerns at the Turners Falls High School and Great Falls Middle School building in the wake of the Sandy Hook shooting prompted a backlash from the interim superintendent; his response in turn met with a backlash from the School Committee chair.

In an email dated Dec. 15, the day following the massacre in Newtown, Conn., Turners Falls High School Principal Patricia Gardner raised concerns over the shared middle and high school building security.

“On the heels of this tragedy, my concern, since I started last school year, is that even during a lockdown, we are not completely locked down because the “buzz in” lock system does not (work) properly,” Gardner wrote in the email addressed to interim Superintendent Mark Prince and copied to the school committee.

“Quite frequently, we are not able to unlock the door remotely which means someone would have to go into the lobby and open the door. Therefore, we leave the door unlocked,” Gardner wrote. “The issue is that we desperately need additional office help.”

If the door is left locked, the front desk employee has to go into the lobby to unlock the door, and if she is busy or away from her desk, guests stand outside incessantly buzzing. If the door is left unlocked, visitors can walk into the building without being seen.

“I hope we can have immediate dialogue on how we address this safety issue,” Gardner wrote.

“At no time have you brought to my attention a real desire on your part to add additional staff to the high school office,” Prince wrote in a reply also copied to the School Committee.

“To use this unspeakable and tragic event to lobby for additional staffing shows poor decision making and demonstrates extremely poor judgement,” Prince wrote, instructing Gardner to schedule a meeting Monday morning. “Also, I want to be very clear here, do not use this tragic event to push a private agenda. I will not look kindly on any educator in my charge modeling that type of behavior.”

Joyce Phillips, Gill-Montague Regional School Committee chairwoman, responded that she was shocked by Prince’s reaction.

“I do not believe that Ms. Gardner was using the tragedy in Connecticut to drive any agenda. Both her decision-making and judgement were on target — the students! I found no ‘private agenda’ in her email.”

Phillips wrote she was in complete agreement with Gardner that the middle and high school security is inadequate.

Regarding the office staffing, Phillips wrote there is primarily one person in the office, staffing has been inadequate for some time with personnel reductions over the past few years never replaced, and that she had personally spoken to Prince about it.

School Committee member Marjorie Levenson also replied to Prince’s email, writing, “I am ashamed that you would respond to a safety concern in this manner.”

Phillips said a review of security for all the district schools will be on the agenda for the Jan. 8 School Committee meeting.

Prince responded that the district has conducted several safety and procedural drills since September and had not received any information from any administrator regarding the need for additional support or that safety and security may be compromised.

“With repeated safety drills conducted this fall, to get to this place and time and read her email about safety concerns at the high school is troubling,” Prince wrote.

Wednesday, Phillips said she knows the security issue is being addressed but does not know if it has been resolved.

Prince told The Recorder the incident was a non-issue, saying it was a misunderstanding between himself and a building administrator.

Prince said Wednesday he believed the buzzer was already fixed or if not would be shortly.

“I just don’t like myself reporting one thing to the committee, being informed from my team, then to find out that the information that was given me wasn’t completely accurate,” Prince said. “So my response was me and that building principal need to sit down and have a conversation because the right hand needs to know what the left hand is doing.”

Prince disagreed with the presentation of staffing as inadequate.

“There are three support staff personnel in that office along with the two administrators; at no time is all five of them out of the office,” Prince said

Gardner said Wednesday someone had come in to look at the door and it will be fixed shortly and kept locked in the future.

Gardner said the office has one school secretary, the registrar, a budget person and a sub who works in the office when not in the classroom, but the secretary is at times the only person in the office.

“The superintendent and I met on Monday and we’re coming up with a resolution that’s going to make the building safe,” Gardner said of the staffing concerns she had raised.

Safety review planned

Prince said the district will conduct a review of safety procedures, which will be updated if needed. “Right now we’re doing a check of the buildings, generating a list of things that may need to be repaired, then we’re going to do a review of our plans,” Prince said.

Prince said plans will be reviewed and updated if necessary following the U.S. Department of Education’s strategies, and brought to the School Committee in executive session to avoid compromising security by discussing the particulars in public.

Prince said administrators will also be meeting with Gill and Montague police for their input, and an administrator will meet a retired state police officer specializing in school situations for a preparedness training.

You can reach Chris Curtis at:
ccurtis@recorder.com
or 413-772-0261, ext. 257

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