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By Heidi Creighton Ciampa

Correspondent

Bomb threats are becoming a regular conversation topic in many communities. Local school districts such as Groton-Dunstable and Ayer-Shirley have received such threats, causing evacuation of students in the cold winter, disruption of the school day and fear.

School districts in the Nashoba Valley region are taking school safety seriously, and not simply dismissing such threats as a hoax.

Joan Landers, superintendent of North Middlesex Regional School District, has ongoing meetings with district leadership, police and fire personnel from Ashby, Pepperell and Townsend. The group provides ongoing training for both students and staff on how to react in crisis situations. The school staff, plus police and fire staff have also been trained in ALICE (Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter, Evacuate), which prepares individuals to handle the threat of an active shooter.

The Groton-Dunstable Regional School District (GDRSD) is one of the local communities whose schools received bomb threats on Jan. 19. Superintendent Dr. Kristan Rodriguez said the middle school and Florence Roche Elementary School were evacuated.

“We have seen a sharp increase in school violence across the nation in recent years,” said Rodriguez. “It has become a sad reality of the educational landscape.”

“Over the last 5-10 years, and with the increase in communication outlets, it is easier for someone to pose a threat and remain anonymous through the use of different technological outlets,” said Landers. “Also, we are seeing an increase in the number of individuals with severe social and emotional needs which go untreated due to lack of funding for mental health services in the country.”

Rodriguez believes safety planning needs to be inclusive of myriad scenarios and situations, ranging from threats or acts of violence, to dangerous weather conditions, to hazardous materials exposure. A few years ago, the GDRSD created a coordinator of district security position, filled by Karen Tuomi. This year, the Groton police department created a new school resource officer position, filled by Rachael Mead, to support all of the schools in town, both public and private.

Rodriguez praises Tuomi and Mead as invaluable, effective, collaborative and resourceful members of the safety team. In addition, the district works closely with the police and fire chiefs from Groton and Dunstable on a regular basis.

At Bromfield School in Harvard, safety is also a priority. Although the Harvard Public Schools did not receive a bomb threat on Jan. 19, the superintendent, Dr. Linda Dwight, issued an electronic communication to Harvard school families: “The leadership team and I wanted to contact you regarding the news reports of bomb threats in local schools and inform you of our meeting with Police Chief Denmark and Fire Chief Sicard today. The two chiefs confirmed that the threats were all found to be noncredible. The reason for our meeting was to be proactive and make sure that our plans are in place, and the necessary personnel are aware of their duties and responsibilities in the event of such a threat in Harvard … Harvard has not received any threats to date.”

Dwight emphasizes the need to be proactive for an internal threat, in addition to external threats.

“The more we can take care of our students’ social and emotional needs, the better we can take care of them,” she explains.

Harvard public schools have also amassed a safety committee including school administration/ staff and the Harvard police and fire department staff. The safety team has outlined defined plans for each crisis scenario and they practice those scenes.

Additionally, every teacher in Harvard Public Schools is equipped with a red “Emergency Management Handbook,” which was created together with the Harvard Crisis Plan Committee. The handbook contains quick reference tabs for 30 different safety issues,.

All three superintendents acknowledged that technology aids them in communicating a crisis situation. Landers and Dwight pointed out that while technology is useful in this regard, it also poses a significant challenge due to the large impact social media has on their ability to respond to threats or crisis situations. Misinformation via social media raises parents’ anxiety level and makes communications tricky at a sensitive time.

Looking ahead, the top school safety priorities for Rodriguez, Landers and Dwight include the ongoing training of their staff, students and parents in regard to crisis situations, and reviewing, updating and enhancing plans on a regular basis.

In 2014, the State Police Bomb Squad, in conjunction with fire, school and local police, developed a Bomb Threat Guidance Document. When the heads of school, fire and police departments meet before the start of each school year to go over their Multi-Hazard and EMS plans, these bomb threat protocols will be included.

Information on school safety requirements may be found on the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education website: http://www.doe.mass.edu/

Editor’s Note: The superintendent of the Ayer-Shirley Regional School District, Dr. Mary Malone, did not respond to several requests for information for this article. The ASRSD received a bomb threat on the same day as GDRSD, Jan. 19.