SCHOOL COMMITTEE RACE Q&A: Fennelly, Ragsdale & Byrnes Discuss School Safety

WILMINGTON, MA — Wilmington Apple is asking School Committee candidates Jesse Fenelley, David Ragsdale, and MJ Byrnes questions each week leading up to the April 28 Town Election.

This week’s questions focus on school safety and related topics.  Below are the candidates’ responses, in their own words:

Jesse Fennelly

Jesse Fennelly

How is Wilmington Public Schools doing in keeping their students and staff safe? What more can be done? Do you support having an armed guard stationed at each Wilmington school?

Our school system is vitally important to the overall success of our town.  Aside from providing a robust, high-quality, well-rounded education, the safety of our schools has to be one of the most important issues for any school district.  In light of recent tragic events that have taken place in schools across our country, the safety and security of our school facilities is facing increased scrutiny.  I believe it is crucial that our school committee work in conjunction with the school administration, as well as police and fire departments, to assess and improve the safety of our schools on an ongoing basis.

As parents, we place an incredible amount of trust and faith in our schools when we send our kids off every morning.  That said, we also know and appreciate how diligent the teachers, administrators and staff in Wilmington are about making sure that, during the school day, the facilities are as safe and secure as possible while being warm, inviting and conducive to a positive learning environment.  I have the utmost respect for the professionals who care for and educate our children during the school day, and have great appreciation for the seriousness with which they address school safety.  They became teachers to educate, and for them to have to think about how to address a security threat during the school day is more than we should be asking of them.  As a parent, as a candidate, and potentially as a member of the school committee, I will always advocate for and support our teachers and appreciate all they do for our children.

I attended the school committee meeting earlier this week and got to listen in on two very informative presentations about the security of our schools.  Before going any further, I want to commend Mr. Strasnick, Principal at the Woburn St. School for not only chairing the WPS safety committee, but for being honest about what the schools have done to ensure the safety of students and staff during the school day, but also about what improvements might potentially be made.  I also want to commend WPD Lieutenant Scott Sencabaugh for his candid conversation on school security as well.  The information and insight he offered was well received and incredibly thoughtful.  We are extremely fortunate to have them both working in our community.

Wilmington is known to be a leader in school safety, and it shows.  It shows in the commitment and diligence of the staff, the excellent working relationship between the schools and our emergency services departments, and it shows in the thoroughness of the district safety plan.  Overall, I believe the Wilmington Public School system, to date, is doing a very good job of keeping our students safe.

But there is always more that can be done.  As Lt. Sencabaugh indicated at the school committee meeting this past week, perhaps a full, thorough inspection of all buildings should be undertaken.  Walking the school and identifying trouble areas, making sure all door and window locks in the classrooms are in place and functioning appropriately.  Ensuring that exterior doors are properly locked during the school day.  In addition, aside from the High School, WPS is in possession of a number of aging facilities and it should be stressed that these buildings need to be checked for safety and security on a regular, ongoing basis.  Lastly, it was mentioned that maybe there would be an increase in the number of ALiCE drills the district conducts, a plan that, as a candidate and if elected, I would fully support.

We also need to make sure that everyone has the appropriate training to identify potential issues with students before they arise.  Teachers, administrators, staff members, coaches, and bus drivers, amongst others, should all be able to spot, and report, potential issues early on.  I am also fully supportive of increased funding for school counselors and mental health professionals to work with troubled students to get the help and support they need.  Providing for the mental health of all students is vital, and I look forward to working with the school committee and Dr. Brand to secure funding for this critical need in our schools.

I also would be inclined to support the idea of armed school resource officers in every school building.  Currently, I believe that there are two full-time resource officers, one at the high school and one at the middle school.  It is my thought that a qualified, well-trained guard at a school has the potential to be a deterrent and, if elected, will encourage my colleagues on the school committee, working with Chief Begonis and the WPD, to explore fully funding the hiring and training of a resource officer at every school building in Wilmington.

In closing, I appreciate the work that has been done by the safety committee and everyone involved in making sure our schools are secure every day.  The safety and security of our students and staff is of the utmost importance.  We must, however, always be vigilant and always be reevaluating our procedures to ensure, to the extent we can, that nothing tragic ever occurs in our town.  If elected, I will work closely with the administration and my colleagues on the school committee to keep our students, staff, and schools safe.

David Ragsdale

David Ragsdale

How is Wilmington Public Schools doing in keeping their students and staff safe? 

Wilmington has taken school safety very seriously and has many procedures in place to keep our schools safe, including

– Card readers on school entrances so that only staff with badges can unlock them

– Locked doors with an intercom and video system to verify visitors and buzz them in

– Exterior video cameras at the high school and interior video cameras at the high school and middle school

– School resource officers at the high school and middle school

– Two-way radios for communication within school buildings and at least one radio in each building that links to public safety dispatch for emergencies

In addition, we were an early adopter of the ALICE protocol, and run drills twice a year. We also have one of the top experts on school safety in Massachusetts on our police force — Lt. Scott Sencabaugh, who has been front and center in the safety policies and training for the Wilmington Public Schools. Each building has a safety committee, and the district has a safety committee.

Overall, I think WIlmington has taken many proactive steps to ensure the safety of our schools, and the school department has done a good job with the safety policies of our district.

What more can be done?

There’s always more than can be done, and you will never have a consensus of exactly what the right safety policies should be, but here are some principles that I believe should guide us.

– Policies should be based on evidence, ideally on evidence-based research that shows they will be effective in achieving their ends.

– Since resources are always limited, the district’s money should be spent on measures that yield the most benefit in terms of security and safety.

– Policies should be based on a realistic assessment of risk.

The most important thing I believe that our school system can do to increase the safety of students and staff is to be rigorously proactive about the social and emotional well-being of our students. The most common threats to students’ safety are the ones we don’t always think of as safety issues — bullying, substance abuse, thoughts of suicide, and similar issues. The most recent YBRS (Youth Behavior Risk Survey) data for Wilmington (and most other surrounding towns) showed many areas of concern, and troubled students become a risk to others when their behavior is not appropriately addressed.

Do you support having an armed guard stationed at each Wilmington school?

It depends on what exactly we’re talking about. I am completely opposed to the arming of school teachers. I am open to the possibility of adding more school resource officers, who are career law enforcement officers with extensive training, and specifically trained to work in collaboration with schools. If we are talking about hired armed guards who are not police officers, I would not be comfortable with that unless many conditions were met.

– Extensive training similar to that provided to law enforcement officers

– Frequent firearm practice on a shooting range under simulated high-stress conditions. Without such practice I would question someone’s ability to use a firearm effectively in a high-stress situation.

– Armed guards in schools must keep their firearms both ready to use and absolutely secure, and thus must be trained to overcome any attempt to access their weapon.

– Discharging a firearm in a school is extremely dangerous under any circumstances and could easily wound or kill innocent victims. Armed guards must be trained to evaluate the risk of firing and hold their fire when the risks are too high.

I think it is unlikely that those conditions would be met by hired, armed guards, so I would most likely oppose this.

Despite the recent tragedies, most schools are safer today than they’ve ever been. The U.S. Department of Education released a report [] just this past week showing that schools are safer today than they were 20 years ago by nearly every measure.

Our kids do lots of things in a lot of places. They spend time at home. They play sports, they ride bikes, they dance. We drive them around town to their extracurricular activities. Out of all the hours of the day, most kids are probably never safer than when they’re in school. I think Wilmington is taking appropriate steps to ensure that’s the case.

MJ Byrnes

MJ Byrnes

How is Wilmington Public Schools doing in keeping their students and staff safe? What more can be done? Do you support having an armed guard stationed at each Wilmington school?

I believe WPS has done and continues to do an incredible job in ensuring our staff and students are and remain safe.

Over the past several years, the District has placed multiple protocols, procedures and equipment to do so. We have cameras on the outside and within areas of our schools, installation of automatic locking mechanisms on our doors, ‘buzz in’ systems, ALICE drills, safety buckets to name a few, that are frequently reviewed and revised by our District’s Safety Committee, along with the WPD. Since the creation of these initiatives, I have seen the effectiveness of these measures in action, several times over the years.

As Lt. Sencabaugh stated at our recent meeting, we can and will continue to invest in building upon our programs and creating more support services for at risk students. We will continue to train staff and students in safety drills and skills that include a ‘see something, say something-like’ philosophy.

I am opposed to having an armed guard(s) stationed at each school, at this juncture, for a couple of reasons:

I believe it will place further strain on our school budget in that we would need to contract this service out, which would be very expensive and potentially open the District to a host of other problematic issues and risks. At this point, I also don’t see it as being a viable solution that the District could sustain financially over the long term.

I also believe it would potentially cause additional anxiety amongst our students and staff, and be a distraction within our schools. I’m also concerned that it may also inadvertently cause a false sense of security amongst our school community, as well.

I would, however, be open to a discussion of how the WPD and our resource officers might possibly be utilized as we continue to do all we can do to ensure the schools continue to be safe learning environments.

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One thought

  1. Very helpful to read about the candidates’ views on this issue. Thanks to the Apple for asking, and to the candidates for answering.

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