About 100 parents, many angry that people were allowed in and out of St. Angela Merici Catholic School in Bradford during a recent hold and secure, aired their grievances Monday night.
“At the end of the day, this school was not secure,” said parent John McBeth. “We had a blatant disregard for the safety of the students. When we are put in hold and secure … the rules cannot be taken lightly. That’s when somebody’s life gets risked.”
While South Simcoe, Barrie and York Region police searched for a shooting suspect in Bradford West Gwillimbury on June 7, St. Angela, Chris Hadfield Public School and W.H. Day Elementary School were each put on a hold and secure, which means the buildings’ doors are locked, so no one can enter or exit, but activities continue inside.
St. Angela and Chris Hadfield were also polling stations. While the latter shut down its polling station until the hold and secure was lifted, St. Angela allowed people to come inside and vote and parents to come pick up their children.
The suspect was eventually arrested on Faris Street, less than 10 minutes from St. Angela.
The school had previously hired a security guard for election day, who screened people at the front door and let them in.
He was given a description of the suspect for whom police were searching, and his presence allowed the school “much more flexibility” in the hold and secure than Chris Hadfield, said South Simcoe Police Deputy Chief Robin McElary-Downer.
St. Angela’s principal Joe Almeida was the one to decide to keep the polling station open.
“(South Simcoe Police) Chief (Andrew) Fletcher and I both had confidence in Mr. Almeida’s judgment, and we still do to this day,” McElary-Downer said.
Almeida told parents he never doubted the students were safe throughout the incident.
“There needs to exist a level of trust. If I believed for one second we were in any danger, we would not have gone ahead (with keeping the polling station open),” he said. “We can’t live in fear, and that’s what we’re perpetuating tonight, and that’s unfortunate.”
Despite their reassurances, many parents said they were upset at the school’s decisions during the hold and secure.
For example, the school board’s policy for a hold and secure is to send home notice with students at the end of the day to let parents know what happened.
Some parents said they wished they were told earlier instead of finding out about it on social media or from friends of children at the other schools involved.
“I live on Faris. I could see the whole swat team. I don’t like finding out about stuff happening at my daughter’s school on Facebook,” said parent Esther Bourgault. “The key word here is communication.”
Juliana Meneses, another parent, who works in downtown Toronto, said she called the school about 15 times with no answer after learning about the hold and secure.
“That terrified me. My panic was through the roof,” she said. “I didn’t feel like my kids were safe. Feeling safe and being safe are two very different things.”
Meneses also pointed out that the security guard was hired for the election, not for a hold and secure.
Another parent questioned the credentials of the security guard.
“If it’s the same person I saw when I came to vote… I don’t even know if that person was 18. I’m not very big, but I could’ve probably taken that person out.”
Some parents also shared their concerns about the portables, as students were allowed to leave in pairs to go to the bathroom inside the main building or to pick up hot lunches for their classes.
While most of the feedback from parents was negative, some spoke in support of Almeida and the decisions made that day.
“Every single door to each classroom … was locked. There were no students roaming the halls aimlessly,” said Angela Sergio, a parent and lunchtime volunteer. “I felt like (my kids) were safer here than at their home.”
Another parent said the suspect was in her backyard at one point while her daughter, who is in Grade 8, was home alone.
She said the police did an “amazing job” containing the area and that the school answered all her questions every time she called during the hold and secure.
“If you needed that communication, I feel like there was an open door,” she said.
Jane Dillon-Leitch, a superintendent of education with the school board, told the parents the board will consider their comments, reach out to other school boards about their policies, and meet with police to see whether any changes to its own hold-and-secure policy should be made.
She also said she called Elections Ontario after the incident because several parents told her they did not believe polling stations should be held in schools.
Dillon-Leitch said she would write a letter outlining those concerns and send it to Elections Ontario for consideration.
There is no “definite time frame” for when the school board will get back to parents, she said.