The Essex Westford School District hosted a community forum last week that sought to inform parents about ways schools keep children safe and ask for input on how to do it better.

District administrators say the forum is the launching point for a long-term focus on school safety that will require input from all facets of the community.

“We want to make sure that our kids are safe and it’s a safe place to learn; our employees are safe and it’s a safe place to work; and that our community strengthens and becomes safer because of that,” chief operating officer Brian Donahue said.

Participants in last week’s forum shared ideas on how to keep local schools safer. Ideas included more inclusive behavior, better gun control legislation and locking doors at Essex High School, among others. (Colin Flanders | Essex Reporter)

More than 70 community members participated in the break-out style forum moderated by Sue McCormack. Most identified communication as the one word that makes them feel safest in their community, with speakers saying they like to be informed and feel like they’re being heard.

Donahue said that’s one of the forums’ key goals: to build up a reputation of trust with the community that the district is listening.

Patrick Knowles, a parent of an Essex High School freshman, said he was impressed the school district is willing to talk about what could potentially be a “real hot potato topic.”

“Opening up and starting this dialogue to generate more ideas, I think, is an extremely smart, extremely wise approach,” Knowles said. “It’s good for the community to start thinking about this more holistically than single-mindedly.”

Knowles moved back to Vermont in part because he believes it’s a generally safe environment. He said while he feels safe sending his daughter to school, concerns of safety do weigh on her mind.

“Her experience versus my experience in high school are two very different things, and it’s unfortunate,” he said.

One student who’s experiencing that difference first-hand is Jamaal Hankey, who was part of the forum’s planning team and said he finds conversations like these useful because they bring together so many different perspectives.

“A lot of stuff came up that I wouldn’t have thought of myself,” he said.

Superintendent Beth Cobb said the administration wanted to host a forum after some situations here following the shooting in Parkland, Fla. That includes a February incident that saw students alerting police to a potentially threatening post from a juvenile, whom police eventually tracked down and cited after deeming it was a hoax.

“We need to take care of each other in the community,” Cobb said. “When we see something odd or something doesn’t look right, or someone might be acting a little different than normal … let’s take care of them and invite them in.”

“We need to talk to kids about that too,” she continued. “We can’t have somebody be alone.”

One way to do that is by increasing the district’s use of restorative practices, which some EWSD teachers have started using on their own, according to education consultant and teacher Annie O’Shaughnessy.

She explained the 1994 gun-free schools act resulted in a rash of zero-tolerance policies that eventually leaked into other behavioral disciplinary actions. That meant more suspensions.

But, O’Shaughnessy said, a Centers for Disease Control study 15 years later concluded the strongest protective factor to decrease violence among boys and girls is school connectedness. Restorative practices offer an alternative approach by allowing the victim and offender to reconcile and develop a relationship.

“It really decreases the number of behavioral referrals to the office and, in essence, keeps kids in the classroom learning, where they’re supposed to be,” O’Shaughnessy said.

Discussions also focused on prevention, with a focus on locking Essex High School’s front door — the district’s only school that doesn’t lock its main point of entry during the school day. A handful of parents called on the district to begin the practice, and Cobb said principal Rob Reardon said the school needs to have a “serious conversation” about it.

Rob Evans, Vermont’s school safety liaison officer, noted that topic underscores a sensitive balance school districts across the state and country are now working to address: maintaining a secure school that’s also welcoming to students and the community.

“What do we want from our schools?” Evans asked. “If you’re going to ask Rob Evans the parent, if you’re going to ask Rob Evans the safety consultant, you’re going to get another answer.

“There’s no one quick fix. It’s not just locking doors,” he continued. “It’s everything. And that’s the problem: They only have to be right 1 percent of the time. We have to be right 100 percent.”