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Gun incident comes as Portland schools evaluate security systems, procedures

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Gun incident comes as Portland schools evaluate security systems, procedures

PORTLAND — School officials got a sobering reminder last week that they must study and improve security measures, the School Committee chairman said, when a teaching assistant brought a handgun to Riverton Elementary School last week.

The teacher's aide is licensed to carry a concealed weapon and did not intentionally bring the gun into the school on Nov. 18, according to police. But students noticed the gun in a gym bag in the cafeteria and reported it to a faculty member. The aide removed the gun from school and was placed on administrative leave while police investigate the incident.

Police Lt. Ted Ross said police were told the gun was not loaded.

"We are still trying to confirm that," Ross said last Friday.
"There's nothing to suggest this was intentional. It is somewhat troubling in regards to the potential outcome should it have gotten into the wrong person's hands. It could have been catastrophic."

Riverton Principal Nancy Kopack sent a letter to parents to explain the school's response.

"At no time were students in any danger or threat of danger," Kopack said. "This is a highly regrettable incident that should not have happened. The staff member involved is very upset and sorry for any worry it has caused our school community."  

Police are expected to wrap up their investigation early this week and submit a report to the district attorney, who will decide whether to file charges against the aide. Possession of a gun on school property is a Class C misdemeanor, Ross said, punishable of up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine.

Superintendent of Schools James C. Morse Sr. said administrators are investigating whether any disciplinary action should be taken against the aide for violating school policies. Neither the School Department nor police would release the identity of the teaching assistant. 

Regardless of the teacher's lack of intent, School Committee Chairman Peter Eglinton said, the incident is a reminder about the need to be vigilant about student safety.

"It's obviously a concern," Eglinton said. "It points to the need for vigilance and it points to the importance of reviewing our safety procedures."

This was the second incident involving a gun on or near school grounds in the last year. In May, a man was caught trying to load a high-powered rifle outside the First Parish Unitarian Church, which abuts Portland High School's freshman alley connecting the school with Congress Street.  

In October, the School Committee approved a resolution calling on the superintendent to work with public safety officials to study the emergency preparedness of the schools and recommend improvements.

Eglinton said that study could ultimately result in recommended capital upgrades, including key-card entry systems, communication systems and security cameras, that would help the schools deal with an intentional act of violence.  

"At this moment, (last week's event) is an isolated incident," Ellington said. "At a minimum, it points to possibility of something like this happening."

Morse said the incident will certainly inform discussions about improving school safety, but it will not dominate the discussion.

"It's an aberration," Morse said. "It doesn't make any sense to build a plan around an single incident."  

Ross said he is confident that the schools are doing everything they can to protect students and faculty from threats at school. 

"All of the schools have taken very seriously safeguarding the students and the faculty," he said. "Typically, when you're talking about policies and procedures you're addressing more so those things that are intentional act, not accidental or oversights." 

Whatever form the security upgrades take, Ross said schools may never be able mitigate all threats against students.  

"Anything a school can do, either by policy or by training to minimize the possibility of that occurring, is certainly desired and something we all strive for," he said. "I know there are efforts towards achieving those goals. I don't think we could ever be prepared for everything."

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or rbillings@theforecaster.net