Catholic school principals remain vigilant after second threatening letter

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CRANSTON — After Johnston Police received a second letter that threatened to target elementary schools in Johnston, Cranston, and Warwick, local Catholic school principals are taking proper precautions.

But, it doesn’t take a threat for them to be on guard.

“Long before this incident happened, we were planning for this incident to happen,” said Brian Cordeiro, principal of Cranston’s Immaculate Conception Catholic Regional School. “I see a lot of confirmation of how good the system is at protecting our kids and how many different resources we have.”

Others agree, including St. Rose of Lima School Principal Kim Izzi and St. Peter School Principal Joan Sickinger. Both schools are located in Warwick.

“We’re doing what we always should be doing, and reiterating the need to do so,” said Izzi, with Sickinger saying, “We’re always alert.”

Despite the threats, principals carried on with a majority of planned activities. Cranston’s Immaculate Conception still held picture day last week, as well as a Halloween party, and St. Mary School, also in Cranston, went on with their “Trunk or Treat” celebration Friday night.

“My first instinct was to cancel, but if you give into that, you might as well shut down,” said Principal Lisa Lepore, noting that they hired a police detail for the event. “We had a crisis team meeting with parents and teachers to review our procedures and policies and talked it through. The consensus was, ‘let’s go for it as long as we hire a detail.’ The kids were really looking forward to it.”

At the event, children gleefully ran to each decorated vehicle, with parents and volunteers passing out candy from the trunks of their cars and SUVs. Most of the kids were dressed as their favorite super hero or princess, and others made their own creative costumes.

No matter the outfit, each of them was wearing a smile and having fun.

“In order for us to overcome this fear, you have to move on and you have to move forward,” said Erin Devine, whose daughter, Amaya, 6, is a kindergartner at St. Mary. “You can’t let it stop you, especially when it comes to children because they sense fear.”

Kevin and Maria Corriveau feel the same. They are confident that Lepore and her staff are taking good care of their son, Gavin, 3, a pre-kindergartener.

“Safety was a priority before this event happened,” Maria said. “But it’s unfortunate that a police officer has to be here.”

As a safety measure, officers have been present at elementary schools in all three municipalities. While the first letter threatened a beheading, the second letter didn’t, nor did it hint at any other harmful actions against students.

Warwick Police Chief Col. Stephen McCartney noted on the Warwick Police Department website that “the investigation is ongoing.” Based on the handwriting, he said the letter was likely written by the same person.

Johnston Police received the first letter on October 7; the second came in the mail on October 22. Though schools saw dramatic drops in attendance in the days that followed the first threat, there was only a slight decline following the second.

“People were comfortable with how we handled it the first time,” said Izzi, noting that while 69 students were absent on October 9, 10 were absent on October 23. “They trust us, and I think that’s a reason why there are even fewer students absent.”

Sickinger shared similar sentiments. She said there were 30 students out the day after the first threat, but attendance was normal the next two days. There were only four absent following the second threat.

“Parents trust us to keep their kids as safe as possible,” Sickinger said. “But there doesn’t have to be a threat; we do that every day.”

Still, Sickinger is advising staffers to be extra vigilant. Since all doors are locked, including entrances, they are advised not to hold doors open for strangers.

Cordeiro also said Immaculate Conception has a “very restricted access” to the school campus, noting that they have “a very secure perimeter.” Since the facility was built in 2009, following school shootings such as Columbine, they have several security measures to deter perpetrators.

“We are a newer school, so we are very blessed with having a lot of technology that keeps us safe,” said Cordeiro, noting that some of the equipment enables him to “rapidly communicate with the staff and parents.”

Their location is also key, as they are about a minute and a half from the National Guard Office.

Additionally, they have a very fast response time from the Cranston Police Department.

Cordeiro also said God is helping them through the fear and frustration.

“We need to teach our kids that we have to meet these moments with great faith,” Cordeiro said.

The other principals, along with Catholic School Superintendent Dan Ferris, feel the same.

“We are taking every measure to ensure safety, and that includes being a community of prayer,” Ferris said. “In a situation in which there is anxiety and concern, our principals and teachers are wonderful about pulling the community together in prayer and assure students that their school is safe. There’s no safer place than in a Catholic school.”

He went on to say that in the wake of the recent threats, the Catholic School Office is working collaboratively with the local police departments to safeguard effective communications with the Catholic schools. This, he said, includes knowing that they have “the most accurate information,” and that schools are “following the clearest directions” for the safety of the children and school staff.

“Every school has a safety plan and they take any kind of threat to the children or personnel very seriously,” Ferris said. “They are responding vigilantly under the guidance that they are being given.”

As noted, Izzi and Cordeiro, as well as Lepore and Sickinger, are doing their best to keep routines undisturbed. Short of holding indoor recess a day or two, it’s been business as usual.

“We can’t instill fear in these kids,” Lepore said. “You can’t give in. God is watching over us. I’m not naïve enough to think that that’s the only thing, but I do believe that his work is at hand.”

If anyone has any information regarding the threatening letters, contact the Johnston Police department at 231-4210.