RSU 21 Fumbles in the Face of Sanford Crisis

Photo Credit: David Rush

An unidentified person, dressed in black and wielding a rifle, has killed five students and injured ten others. Suspects are being marched out of the woods in Sanford. Police and SWAT swarm a dozen schools across the state. 

These are some of the rumors that dominated student consciousness for the first few hours of November 15 when ten Maine high schools, including RSU 21 affiliated Sanford Regional Tech Center, reported active shooters. This was an unprecedented act of terror against our state and community, and it forced many to confront the idea of mortal danger in school. And perhaps most frightening was the exacerbation of many known flaws and inefficiencies at our school throughout the crisis. Minor issues like doors that don’t lock, large-group study halls, confusing cell phone policies, and a history of noncommunication rapidly became major safety concerns. To prevent a future tragedy, it is imperative that each of these problems are solved as quickly as possible. 

One area with serious safety issues in the event of a crisis is the Economos Lecture Hall, where study halls of up to eighty students are held. In the event of a credible threat to student safety, this location would quite possibly be the worst to be trapped in. Historically,  school shooters target densely populated areas where they can cause the most amount of casualties with the least amount of effort. The doors to the Economos have no interior locks, and in fact fit together so poorly you can clearly see into the room from the hall. It seems absurd that this is the only protection afforded to one of the largest concentrations of students in the building.  As of this week, there are concrete plans to increase the security of the Lecture Hall. These plans are assumed to be carried out before the new year. There have long been complaints about the effectiveness, productivity, and climate within these study halls. Now, legitimate safety concerns can be added to this list. 

The second major concern is communication between school leaders and students. No official information was directly provided to students until hours after Kennebunk High School quietly slipped into its extended hold in place. This knowledge vacuum created a perfect environment for the spread of false information which weighed heavily on many students’ minds in the hours that followed. This information included the incorrect death tolls in Sanford, as well as the information that many other schools in Maine were being threatened. The simple facts emailed to parents by Dr. Cooper at 9:16, 45 minutes after the hoax began, would have eased the minds of countless students had it been provided to them. “All students and staff are safe,” she wrote, claiming that all measures were merely from “an abundance of caution.” 

The third flaw is the absence of any official guidance on cell phone usage during a lockdown or hold in place. Earlier this year, much more strict cell phone rules were imposed school wide, basically requiring that electronics be stowed and in phone caddies for the duration of a class. On the morning of the hold in place, the majority of teachers allowed students to access their phones after first block ended. Some, however, acting under guidance from the policy, refused to allow students to access their phones to contact friends and family members. It’s a serious issue if some staff members withhold student’s cell phones under these conditions. Students have the right to contact family and friends during a crisis. 

The hold-in-place continued until the beginning of third block, almost four hours into the school day. Through the duration of the hold in place, it was made clear that students were unequipped to handle and digest misinformation, resulting in the rampant spread of rumors which caused so much distress. This in part was due to the absence of communication with students and teachers throughout the event. Save the order to remain in classrooms, the only communication was a video of Principal Sirois addressing the situation, which was presented before the instruction to proceed through the day. Sirois had been in Florida at a conference throughout the incident. This video was the first and only communication from school leaders directly to students addressing what had happened that day. 

While the Sanford shooting was a hoax,  there are still many lessons to be learned from it. Some solutions to these problems have been proposed; however, definitive decisions are yet to be made. In the wake of an incident like this, it would be a serious error to hold these faulty practices and policies in place.


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