‘The Worst Day’

Sixth-grade teacher Kara Breen cautions her students to be silent during a lockdown drill at Church Street School in Hamden.

Safety first

Sixth-grade teacher Kara Breen cautions her students to be silent during a lockdown drill at Church Street School in Hamden. Breen is enrolled in Quinnipiac's sixth-year diploma in educational leadership program.

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hurch Street School principal Stacie D’Antonio, EDL ’10, took a deep breath this fall before sending students and teachers into the frenetic response of a lockdown drill.

D’Antonio has spent the past 25 years making lesson plans, grading assignments and shaping young lives as a teacher and an administrator. It wasn’t until the last few years, after schools became targets and headline news, that active shooter drills became part of her job description.

For the 350 students at Hamden’s Church Street School one September day — and students all across the country — these drills are the new normal, another page in their school experience. For their principals and teachers, they are at once jarring and disturbing.

“As educators, we didn’t come into education because we wanted to worry about shooters in a school,” D’Antonio said. “We came in because we wanted to educate kids, and we wanted to help them become the best people they could be. Unfortunately, in this world and at this time, it’s something we have to consider and prepare for.”

Last April, the School of Education sponsored “Gun and School Violence: An Interdisciplinary Concern” at Quinnipiac’s North Haven Campus. Anne Dichele, dean of the School of Education, said the need to address gun violence in schools and elsewhere is “no less than a moral imperative.”

“However you believe — as a citizen and a world human being — we need to act,” Dichele said at the event. “Our schools, our teachers, our students need to be safe and free to learn.”

Russ Dallai, principal of North Haven High School, was among the speakers at the well-attended forum. Others included Khalilah L. Brown-Dean, associate professor of political science; Gerald Conlogue, professor emeritus of diagnostic imaging and co-executive director of the university’s Bioanthropology Research Institute; and Connecticut's U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy, via video. The program was organized by Jennifer Dauphinais, visiting assistant professor of education.

Learning has always been the directive of teachers. Students learn best when a classroom is built on collaboration, acceptance, curiosity, and of course, safety. Although active shooter drills are not required under the Connecticut General Statutes, they have been held in school districts such as Newtown, Wallingford, Bridgeport, New Canaan and others.

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Principal Stacie D'Antonio speaks through a walkie talkie as she patrols a school hallway during a lockdown drill

Lockdown drill

Principal Stacie D’Antonio, EDL ’10, says drills remind teachers that they have options in an active shooter crisis.

“School safety and gun violence is at the forefront of the discussion, but it’s not the only thing we should be focusing on. How do you allay children’s fears, even just by going through these drills?” Dichele said. “There are kids out there who experience violence and abuse day after day after day. I’m not so Pollyanna to think we can fix the world… but we do have a responsibility to prepare our teachers for a very complex job.”

One way the School of Education accomplishes this is by assigning student teachers to schools with a culture that may be different than their own.

“Of course, we teach the academics and I think we do them very well,” Dichele said. “But we also need to prepare our teachers for a broader understanding of the world and other cultures. That’s critical for a holistic approach to teaching and being able to reach kids in deeper, more meaningful ways.” The School of Education held a follow-up forum earlier this month with a focus on social and emotional learning.

D’Antonio recalled that students and professors talked a lot about school safety and climate when she was a student. “When you have a strong foundation in school climate and you can set that up, it really helps you build success for other things,” D’Antonio said.

Today in contemporary America, those other things include active shooter drills in our schools and proactive outreach for disengaged students.

D’Antonio understands that relationships matter in a classroom, the same way social interaction and trust matter. At Church Street School, two school psychologists and two social workers conduct weekly classroom programs about conflict, sadness and other mental health and quality of life issues.

“Everybody knows everybody here. The social workers and the psychologists know the kids in the rooms,” D’Antonio said. “If the kids have to come out of class and talk, or if they need help, it’s not ‘Who are you?’ They already know each other.”

In October, D’Antonio became principal of the Ridge Hill School in Hamden. Along with her books and photos, D’Antonio packed a commitment to safety and grassroots relationships. But she still had to learn a new school — the classrooms, the hallways, the students, the teachers — every nook and cranny, as she put it. And that takes time.

The second forum, titled, “The Real Story Behind Safe Schools,” featured remarks by Fay Brown of the Yale Child Study Center and the Comer School Development program; Judy Puglisi, a recent principal at Metropolitan Business Academy, a magnet high school in New Haven; and Marlene DeBellis, a school-based social worker at Side by Side Charter School in Norwalk.

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360° video

Watch as Chruch Street School sixth-graders carry out an active shooter drill.

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Awareness is Critical

Richard Arroyo ’00, principal of the Enlightenment Schoolin Waterbury, Connecticut, guides about 150 students in grades six through 12 at the city’s alternative school for at-risk students. As someone who was an at-risk student himself, he appreciates the struggles — and applauds the successes — of his students. He has little patience for labels and low expectations in his hallways.

“When you talk about teaching school safety, I talk about teaching life,” Arroyo said. “When I was a kid — I’m 49 in October — we did the under-the-desk, put-your-hands-over-your-head drill. Why? In case they dropped a bomb. Was it going to save us? Maybe not. But it was a drill, and drills prepare you to succeed. If you practice something enough — whatever it is — you get better at it.”

Arroyo knows that life isn’t a snapshot. After graduating high school, he worked in maintenance, construction and garbage hauling. It was honest work, but it wasn’t what he wanted to do for the next 50 years. So Arroyo did some soul-searching and began taking classes at a local community college. Almost a decade later, Arroyo earned his bachelor’s degree from Quinnipiac and set out to help others learn.

“Most of our problems in school occur when a troubled student is upset about an issue and acts out on campus. Or maybe they leave campus and come back,” Arroyo said. “Making everyone aware — of themselves, of each other, of their actions, of their surroundings — is important. That awareness leads to a preparedness about school, about life, about handling the tough situations.”

But what about when that tough situation becomes a school shooting? What happens then? For D’Antonio, who began her teaching career at Church Street School in 1993, the best strategy is candor and honesty.

“I’m transparent. When I’m scared, I say I’m scared. When I don’t know the answer, I say that I don’t know the answer,” D’Antonio said. “When I say to staff with tears coming down my face that you’re going to have to make really hard decisions if God forbid the worst day of your life happens, I mean it. But we all hope and pray that’s never the case.”

After years of hopes and prayers, the shootings continue and more communities become synonymous with tragedy — Sandy Hook, Parkland, Columbine. The active shooter drills continue as well.

There is nothing pleasant about these drills, of course. While it’s impossible to scrub and sanitize the need for these 10-minute rehearsals for the worst, it’s also impossible to ignore the threat of school shootings.

“You can’t just talk about it and train about it and forget about it,” D’Antonio said during the summer in her office at Church Street School. “That doesn’t work in real life. It has to come up. It’s a topic of conversation at our staff meetings several times a year.”

D’Antonio pivots her chair as she points to the shatterproof film covering all of the first-floor windows at Church Street School. Next, she points to the “duress buttons” fastened near the top of the door inside every office and every classroom. The buttons are wired to the Hamden Police Department to be used only in the event of a school shooting.

By the Book

Hamden is among 4,200 districts across America that follow the protocol and strategies of the Ohio-based ALICE Training Institute. ALICE is an acronym for alert, lockdown, inform, counter and evacuate.

“It’s not a linear formula, it’s a method of thinking. It gives people options,” D’Antonio said. “Your only choice in a classroom is not just to lock your door and cower in a corner, where if someone did get into your room, you’d all be sitting ducks. You have options.”

Depending on where the emergency is happening, D’Antonio said, students and their teacher could run out of a building. Or they could barricade a door with classroom furniture. As a last resort, they could fight back and disrupt an active shooter by hurling fire extinguishers, chairs, staplers, books, tape dispensers, backpacks, anything they could get their hands on.

Arroyo knows a few things about fighting back. He was no stranger to trouble as a teenager. By the time he graduated from high school, he was hanging out with the wrong crowd at the wrong times. Today, Arroyo uses his past to leverage the future of his students, to diffuse the anger and the discontent before it gets dangerous. Or worse.

“There’s a pretty tough neighborhood up the road from our school called Long Hill — the Long Hill projects,” Arroyo said. “There are some guys up there — OG’s [original gangsters] as they call them — that I know from way back. So when one of the kids from ‘The Hill’ gets in trouble, I tell them to go see MC [a longtime Hill resident].”

Arroyo gets MC to vouch for him and establish his street credibility with ‘The Hill’ students. Once they trust Arroyo, he can help them — in school, in life, in times of trouble.

Principal Richard Arroyo greets students in the hallway on the first day of class at Enlightenment School in Waterbury, Connecticut.

Practice for success

Principal Richard Arroyo ’00 greets students in the hallway on the first day of class at Enlightenment School in Waterbury, Connecticut.

“They ask me how I know MC,” Arroyo said. “I tell them, ‘Never mind how I know MC. Just go ask him about Rich Arroyo.’ They always come back, ‘OK, OK, I got it.’ It works because I’m not that person anymore. That’s what they need to see. They need to see they have options in life that don’t involve bad choices.”

In a generation fixated on “Fortnite” and other video games, learning is more visual than ever.

NowThis, a leading news brand on social media, came to Church Street School last June to videotape an active shooter drill for an upcoming documentary.

D’Antonio said a sixth-grade class simulated a door barricade and a counterattack for the producers. The footage is expected to demonstrate best practices in schools, she said.

D’Antonio credited West Woods School principal Daniel Levy, the district’s safety coordinator, for developing the lockdown plan and other emergency measures for the Hamden Public Schools. She said the regimen serves as a powerful tool to improve classroom safety, especially for newer teachers.

“I really haven’t had new teachers talk about school safety during the interview process, but I’m thinking that might be an important question to include,” D’Antonio said. “Again, no one goes into education to do school shooting drills, but it’s something that needs to be talked about and prepared for.”