Newtown’s horror brought back other darkened place names — Columbine, Virginia Tech, sites where school routines were shattered by gunfire and death.
For school board member Amy Shinohara, Sandy Hook revived chilling memories of Manchester, Mo., and Parkway South Junior High School on Jan. 20, 1983.
“Newtown happened just 20 miles from here. And I know through six degrees of separation we were all enormously impacted by that event,” she told last week’s Board of Finance budget hearing. “But I need to tell you about another event that happened 30 years ago. When I was in middle school — seventh grade, in fact — there was a shooting at my school.”
Ms. Shinohara was in Latin class, next to her best friend, when “an announcement came over the PA: ‘Boys and girls, there’s been a shooting in the school, and we need to evacuate the building.’
“So I grabbed my best friend’s hand, and started running down the hall. We thought there was a madman loose in the building.
“It turned out to be a student, who had brought a gun to school and shot three people, including himself. Two of them died,” Ms, Shinohara said. “This happened in an affluent suburb of St. Louis, not much different than Ridgefield or Newtown.”
Ms. Shinohara shared her story — which was not widely known — to lend some personal immediacy to arguments in support of the school board’s request for $515,000 in added “security staffing” in the $83.5 million 2012-13 school budget.
The security staffing pushes the 2013-14 school budget request from $83,066,000 and a 2.21% increase to $83,581,000 and a 2.84% increase. Further plans for capital spending on security-related equipment will follow a study committee’s report later in the spring.
In an interview last week, Ms. Shinohara spoke more of her experience as a middle schooler in 1983, and of the Ridgefield school board’s initiatives to improve security.
The principal’s announcemen to evacuate the building showed how unprepared schools were in 1983.
“That would never be done this way, but there were no protocols in place back then,” she said.
By the time the principal may his announcement, the shooter had already shot himself. “The shooting had stopped. But we didn’t know that.
“So I truly thought there was madman in building, and thought ‘We have to get out of here, we have to get out of here, we don’t know where he is.’ That kind of thing.”
She also recalls that students returned to building.
“The day went on like a normal day. We went back in the building,” she said.
A mother with sons in middle and elementary school today, Ms. Shinohara says she must have discussed the events with her parents, back then, but she doesn’t recall it.
“It’s not like I got counseling for it. We dealt with it. We moved on,” she said.
The phrase “post traumatic stress disorder” or PTSD wasn’t in use, but people knew the kids had been through a lot.
“Looking back I can say I probably had some of what today we’d call PTSD,” she said. “I did a lot of baby-sitting and a month later, my parents were not home that night, and I got spooked by something and I called a neighbor, and said ‘I just heard a noise.’ Everyone in the neighborhood got it, and he just came over and walked all through the house and all around the house and said ‘You’re fine. You’re good.’ ”
Two years later as freshmen at high school with a mix of students from different middle schools, Ms. Shinohara and another student who’d been at Parkway South bolted from biology class after a loud noise — a car backfiring, perhaps.
“I ran from the room. It was just a reaction,” she said. “I did and one of my friends did. I think everybody else just realized before we did that it was nothing. But we just reacted.”
As for the shooter back in 1983, she said “there must have been mental health issues, and I think he must have been a victim of bullying,” she said.
She heard forensic psychologist Dr. David Bernstein tell a March 14 League of Women Voters forum that research by the FBI’s National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime found three recurring causative factors in school violence: 75% of perpetrators of school violence had felt bullied, persecuted or threatened. Revenge was cited in 61% of incidents. A desire for attention was considered a motive in 24% of cases.
The Ridgefield school board’s $515,000 request for security staffing has three components: $235,000 for two more school resource officers (there is currently one policeman, based at the high school); $200,000 for private security guards so all schools have door security; and a $65,000 mental health aspect.
School officials are still designing the $65,000 mental health component. “There’s discussion about whether the best model is to hire someone full time on staff, or hire consultants to come in and train,” Ms. Shinohara said.
“I think we need to recognize that mental health is as much a component of these school shooter situations as anything else that has come to the forefront,” she said.
“To the extent that we can identify children that are at risk, or troubled in some way, we want to be able to provide them with some services that can address that.”
As someone long sensitive to school security, Ms. Shinohara appreciates the response.
“Newtown was a turning point for a lot of people, I think, especially because these were little children, were some of the most defenseless children we have in our school systems,” she said.
She’s impressed with the school administration’s multifaceted response and the police department’s cooperation.
“They’re checking off all the boxes that I feel we need to check off,” she said.
The security guards in the $515,000 request show as an addition to the budget — they’re new when the 2013-14 request is compared with the budget approved last May for this school year. But they’re on the job already.
Superintendent Low acted swiftly in December to hire the door guards, scrounging money from around the $81 million 2012-13 budget.
“She did that the day after Newtown,” Ms. Shinohara said. “She had the brain storm: everybody’s going to want security guards, we need to book them while they’re still available.”
Still, they weren’t on the job the next week. But “we had a police officer at every single school for that whole week after Newtown happened,” she said. “That was important. There were a lot of people over the weekend who didn’t want to send their children back to school.”
Then, there was a lockdown that first Monday back after police received reports of a man near Branchville School carrying a rifle — it turned out to be an umbrella.
“That was a nightmare,” Ms. Shinohara said. “At three of our elementary schools, the late schools, that lockdown happened as children were arriving at school,” she said.
“We need to plan for all the eventualities. We need to plan for how to get kids into lockdown in a situation like that, when they’re coming off the buses,” she said. “It speaks so highly of our staff, they just took the bull by the horns and just did it.
“There was no plan in place for that. We need that,” she said. “This is some of what the School Resource Officers will be working on.”
Putting security guards at the school entrances has involved a lot — how they’re situated, and equipped, the fact that they’re not armed.
“The security guard are positioned where they can see who’s approaching on the sidewalk. The buzzer system is now located there, with the security guard, rather than the front office. They have computer hardware and software that allows them to do basic background check,” she said.
“It’s not a big deal. They scan your driver’s license. It all happens automatically…
“A lot of parents are concerned these guards are not armed. You don’t want armed security guards. If you want an armed presence, you want police officers,” Ms. Shinohara said. “You want a trained active-duty police officer. That was a decision we made right away.”
Ms. Shinohara said school officials are committed to keeping students in Ridgefield schools as secure as possible.
“As a board member, the words ‘It would never happen here’ would never cross my lips. Pre-Newtown, that could be very frustrating, because most people did have the attitude of ‘Oh, it would never happen here,’ ” she said.
“All of that has gone away now. Everyone is in lock-step with where I am on security issues now.”