Florida tragedy spurs local concern

CHATHAM–Tuesday night’s Board of Education meeting saw the members of the public come together to offer support to one another after the recent school shooting in Parkland, FL. Many of those who spoke expressed their concern for the safety of students in Chatham, but more so they pledged to assist the school district in any way they could.

“We have to stop pretending that this is not going to happen in our hometown,” said Lisa Light Rugen, a Chatham resident. “And we should do everything we can to protect our community.

Mrs. Rugen said she had no desire to spark a gun control debate, but that everyone needed to focus on things that the community did have control over, namely working together. Person after person stood up in the meeting to say they didn’t know what needed to be done, but they were there to help in any manner.

Residents turned out for the Chatham School Board meeting Tuesday night. Speaking at the microphone is School Superintendent Sal DeAngelo. Photo by Claire Gilbert

“Our best approach going forward isn’t to put a Band-Aid on the symptom, but to look to the causes,” Superintendent DeAngelo said in response to the concerns voiced.

“I want to assure you that, at a minimum, we have a security plan in place, we practice lockdown drills with our staff, so should something tragic happen, we feel that we are reasonably prepared to deal with it. But again, I think a pound of prevention would go a long way. We really feel the secret to our success will be relationships that we develop with our students, and the programs that we put in place to deal with the issues of these students.”

Dr. DeAngelo said that Chatham has a school resource deputy from the Sheriff’s Office, who is present at the Chatham schools two days a week. Many law enforcement officials across the country are recommending schools have a full-time resource officer, and Dr. DeAngelo agreed it could be an important next step.

“As we saw in Florida, any one of these solutions are no guarantee to improve the safety. Where I see the value in a school resource deputy again goes back to relationships that individual is able to make with the students.”

“Together as a community, we’re going to take the most positive security posture that we possibly can to protect our students.”

High school students are also ready to get involved, and are planning their own walkout March 14 in conjunction with the National School Walkout, organized across the country by the Women’s March Youth EMPOWER group. The plan is for teachers, students, administrators, and others present to walk out for 17 minutes—one minute for every person killed in Florida two weeks ago.

Althea Brennan, a junior at Chatham High, is the main organizer for Chatham’s event, and was present at Tuesday night’s meeting to share with the board the student plan for a walkout.

Dr. DeAngelo responded by saying that in no way did the school administration want to censure the students’ right to freedom of speech, but said they would need to discuss a way for students to do this without stepping out of the bounds of accepted student conduct.

Principal John Thorsen, Dr. DeAngelo, and Althea plan to meet to create a plan for the high school walkout.

Althea will be attending the school trip to Washington, D.C., next month with her classmates. The trip happens to coincide with the March For Our Lives protest, a march in D.C. to call for gun control and school safety, and Chatham students are hoping to participate while down there.

Dr. DeAngelo mentioned coming up with a way for students to participate under supervision while in D.C. as long as they had parental approval. He also mentioned coming up with an alternative activity for those students who did not wish to attend, but nothing was finalized during the meeting.

Following the public comment, board members conveyed their appreciation to everyone who came out of concern and in support of the students.

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