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.
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.
“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.”