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Lack of Communication by Warwick Officials Raises Alarms

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[CREDIT: Rob Borkowski] Warwick Public Schools Superintendent Phil Thornton answers questions from the Warwick City Council March 20.
[CREDIT: Rob Borkowski] Warwick Public Schools Supt. Phil Thornton answers questions from the Warwick City Council on March 20.
WARWICK, RI — There’s no way to put this delicately: Local officials betrayed the trust of parents, teachers, and students at Holliman and Norwood Schools in failing to inform all of them, immediately, about the failed fire alarms at the buildings.

Superintendent Phil Thornton has assumed full responsibility for the scandal, and while he’s correct that the buck stops with him, there are many in the Warwick community who knew the alarms were broken, and also failed to speak up when it was clear teachers, parents and students were ignorant of the danger they were placed in.

Thornton notified Mayor Scott Avedisian and School Committee Chairwoman Bethany Furtado, as well as Fire Chief James McLaughlin, Fire Alarm Superintendent Mike Moan, and the state Fire Marshal — none of whom, apparently, alerted the wider community about the situation.

Certainly, those outside the school system may be excused for trusting that Thornton would fulfill his duty, for a time. But there was clearly a failure to follow up as the problem lingered for weeks.

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The kindest assessment of those who knew about the alarms but failed to tell the larger community is that it stemmed from misplaced confidence in the school department’s judgement.

School officials later confirmed that custodians have served as fire watchers and that the schools conducted fire drills using their public address systems — but without Norwood Principal John Gannon telling teachers at his school that the regular fire alarm system was inoperable. During an interview on March 23, Thornton admitted: “Yes, the parents should’ve been noticed earlier.”

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Clearly, Thornton was not the only person capable of informing the community, and the others who could have done so must now reconcile themselves with the reality that school safety cannot be entrusted solely to school officials.

This situation underscores a critical blind spot for Warwick officials: The safety of children in the city’s care is not the school department’s sole responsibility, not the fire department, and not solely a city government matter: it’s a community matter.

This should go without saying: Among all the members of the community who should be apprised of student safety issues, the students and parents themselves are the not only among those who need to know, they are the people who most need to know.

On Friday, a week after news of the broken fire alarms was made public, the Norwood PTA met with Thornton and demanded an amended fire plan to account for areas of the school the PA system doesn’t reach — an essential precaution, since that’s the only version of fire alarm available at Norwood and Holliman for the moment.

The fact that this new plan was added at the insistence of the PTA should give reasonable people pause about whether it would ever have been established if the community had not found out about the fire alarms’ malfunction. The children, teachers, and staff at Norwood are safer than before now that the entire community is aware of the situation.

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It’s nothing short of an outrage that the failure of the schools’ alarm systems occurred the same week as the 14-year observance of the Station Nightclub Fire, an event so disastrous that it led to an overhaul of the state’s fire codes — including new requirements for schools to follow in reducing the potential for fires — and yet apparently didn’t lead Thornton and other local officials to alert everyone concerned to the Holliman and Norwood fire alarm problems.

Through their lack of immediate action to inform the public of an urgent issue, local officials damaged the trust they’re supposed to earn from the people whom they serve.

In taking sole responsibility for the oversight, Thornton has explained the mistake as a breakdown in communication. He has declined to elaborate on how that breakdown occurred, but those details are important.

The community deserves a full accounting of how the school department failed to inform the community of the broken alarms. The school department should not be trusted to take prudent steps outside the public eye to prevent similar failures.

They’ve already proven trust in them on that score is foolhardy.

Joe Hutnak
Author: Joe Hutnak

Co-Founder and Editor-at-Large of Warwick Post. For Warwick Post-related inquiries or communications, email editorjoe.warwick@gmail.com