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Newtown Superintendent to Address New Jersey Colleagues on School Security

Janet Robinson's horrific experience has taught her how far emergency planning can go, how to identify and implement new safeguards.

Janet Robinson, former school superintendent, Newtown CT.
Janet Robinson, former school superintendent, Newtown CT.

Janet Robinson, the school superintendent of Newtown CT, remembers every detail of December 14, 2012 -- when the first call came in about a shooting at her Sandy Hook Elementary School.

The horrific incident would ultimately claim 26 lives, including those of 20 children.

Robinson said instinct and years of emergency planning kicked in, prompting her to first put all her other schools on lockdown and then notify neighboring towns.

“Right off the bat, not having full information when I first found out there was a crisis, not knowing how many shooters were involved or any other details, the first thing I did was take the precaution of locking down the entire district,” she said in an interview Friday.

As if she needed to explain herself, Robinson added: “I had no idea if there was someone loose, so you always kind of overreact in that respect. I waited until I had confirmation -- which was some hours later -- before I eased up on the lockdown.”

Robinson will be coming to New Jersey on March 13 to speak to the New Jersey Association of School Administrators’ School Security Conference in Edison.

This is not her first public venture outside the state. She testified before Congress in January, voicing her support for an assault weapons ban. But on this visit she hopes to share with her fellow superintendents lessons from her firsthand, albeit unwanted, experience.

“From what I’m hearing, there isn’t much we could have done differently,” she said.

But she said the rules have clearly changed.

“The thing we are doing now in terms of analyzing security is not so much of stopping an intruder, but stalling an intruder, “ Robinson said.

She said parents have asked for armed police officers in every school, but reminds them that the caliber of the weapons used that day would have ripped through a bulletproof vest.

“This is a different world, and even some of the things that my parents are screaming for are not going to change someone armed this way from getting in,” she said.

Robinson laid out the math. The killing spree lasted four minutes. The first responders were able to get to the building in three.

“So what we’re looking at is how much a minute matters,” she said, “What can we do to stall, delay, change the intruder’s ability to get in quickly and give more time for the first responders?”

She said that gets into things like fortifying doors, improving cameras at the entrances to get a better look on who is approaching and what they may be carrying.

“It set a new standard of attention we have to give,” Robinson said. “I don’t think we’ve ever been complacent, but [this] makes us aware of how much more aware we need to be.”

Responding Instinctually

She said the district’s emergency planning did help, but much of that day was about responding on an instinctual level.

“You talk to someone at 9-11 or any of these situations, and they tell you they did what they needed to do,” Robinson said. “You see the things that need to happen, and you just do it. The doing helps you cope.”

Still, the emergency planning was critical, especially within the schools.

“Everything was in place, but every situation is different, so you have to have the ability to shift gears and do something else,” she said. “Yes, there was an emergency plan, but this was beyond it.”

Countless tasks arose through the day, from deciding on how to eventually release students to their parents to answering questions from law enforcement and the press.

“Rumors were going on in the media that the mother [of killer Adam Lanza] was a teacher, and that was getting to law enforcement and they needed clarification,” she said. “Being able to access all that information and respond to them was critical.”

Robinson said in dealing with the public and the press, she came down on the side of caution. “It is better from our point of view to wait until we have accurate information,” she said.

“The media was way ahead of the accurate information and putting information out before it could be verified,” Robinson said. “I didn’t want to be the source of unverified information, and, frankly, I didn’t have a confirmation for a long time. There were many hours there where I did not know the extent of the crime.”

Robinson said the emergency communication systems with parents through cellphones and email proved particularly important. “The parents liked that, and I used it numerous time over that weekend,” she said.

New District, New Challenges

The weeks and months since the killings have posed a host of new challenges, including a change in her own status.

Long before the shooting occurred, the Newtown school board voted against renewing Robinson’s contract. Last week, she formally accepted the job as superintendent of nearby Stratford Township.

Robinson said Friday that transition means that a lot of the decisions about new or enhanced security will likely be left to her successor and the school board. “The decisions to whether to put those guards in the school is not going to be my decision, that will be a town decision,” she said.

Still, Robinson -- a former school psychologist -- said she hoped that for all the attention on security and hardware, she hopes the psychological and social aren’t overlooked.

For instance, each of the Newtown schools saw teams of eight to 11 mental health professionals in their buildings to help both students and teachers in the aftermath.

Some of those teams have since been scaled back, but she hopes they will be replaced by full-time counselors for every school, not just to help children after the tragedy but maybe to help prevent future ones.

“I believe it is important to have an early intervention with any child exhibiting behaviors or other mental health issues at an early age,” she said. “It is so much easier to deal with a second grader than someone 18 or so.”

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