Local schools up security after Newtown tragedy

By Steve Smith - Staff Writer
Vernon/Ellington/Tolland - posted Wed., Dec. 19, 2012
Air Force One landed in Windsor Locks on Dec. 16, just before President Obama attended a vigil for those killed in the school shooting in Newtown, Conn. Photo courtesy of Windsor resident Daniel Simeone. - Contributed Photo

Following the tragic mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., on Dec. 14, local school districts are taking a hard look at their security measures and how to improve them. Tolland Superintendent of Schools William Guzman met with school administrators on Dec. 18 about improving security across the district.

Security and alertness among staff members was one focus of the discussion, as were improvements for the infrastructure. Currently, cameras and buzzer systems guard the front doors of Tolland schools, and more measures may likely be implemented. Starting immediately, access to schools will only be gained through main entrances during school hours. Guzman said reinstating the resource officers may also become part of future discussions, but for now the district is looking at perhaps utilizing other school personnel at school entrances.

Guzman said a request had already been made to the Board of Education for some additional surveillance equipment upgrades at the schools in town.

Over the weekend following the Newtown incident, Guzman said staff had prepared themselves to deal with students' concerns, and on Monday, Dec. 17, students were informed that counselors were available to speak with them. “We were ready to accept students on Monday morning,” he said.

Ellington Superintendent of Schools Stephen Cullinan said there have been some modifications to school buildings already, and more meetings are scheduled with administrators in order to pool ideas from staff, students and families about what else should be done. He said that he anticipates more meetings in the future to continue to address those needs.

“We're going to look at recommendations that come forth, and we will continue that process,” Cullinan said, adding that the resident state trooper has also been involved in assessing the schools. Meetings with parents at each school building are also in the works, Cullinan said, in order to explain changes and gather more input.

Ellington, like Tolland, and as is required, has also practiced lockdown drills, and Cullinan said that is one of the district's “good procedures.”

“We can improve everything, and we may be adding new steps,” he said. “I think everything is on the table, and we're looking for the expertise of emergency management and state police, and listening to our staff and parents. We will move as quickly as possible with some of the short-term things, and we will take our time to make sure the long-term things are done correctly.”

Ellington had also prepared staff over the weekend to deal with students' concerns Monday.

Vernon Superintendent of Schools Dr. Mary Conway said she met with the district principals early Monday. “We are trying to bring consistency and dependability to all of our properties across the district,” Conway said, adding that while all schools in Vernon have a buzzer system, four of the town's seven schools have anterooms which force a visitor to go through the main office to gain access to the rest of the building. While all schools have signs directing visitors to the office, there has been no way to preclude visitors from going to other parts of the building if they wish.

At the three schools without anterooms, a security person or greeter was put in place on Monday to check identification and provide a visitor badge.

Conway said fire drills are practiced monthly, and the schools also have three types of lockdown drills. Medical drills are designed for when a student or staff member requires an ambulance and needs privacy. Classes, in that case, resume as normal. A soft lockdown happens when a crime is committed in the area of the school, and the threat is outside of the school. Doors are guarded vigilantly and no one may enter or exit the school, and classes are allowed to go on as normal.

In a hard lockdown, classroom doors are locked by teachers, after they usher students in the hallways into the nearest classrooms. Lights are turned off, and students are moved away from doorways and are to remain completely silent, Conway said, adding that the police department would then take control of the situation.

Conway said lockdown drills are practiced at least three times per year, but that she plans to ask schools to practice them more often.

“We want them to be as automatic as fire drills,” she said. “Our students, when the fire alarm goes off, they know what to do. They do exactly what they're told. If we can practice those other kinds of drills so that they are automatic... then we can save many, many lives in the case of school violence.”

Conway added that while school violence is not pleasant to think of, practice and preparedness is crucial, but she said there is also caution being taken to “not turn schools into prisons.”

Two of Vernon's schools held “welcoming walkthroughs” last week, in order to determine how welcoming a school is to the community. She said that effort flies in the face of making schools into fortresses.

“We want our schools to be safe, but we also want them to be welcoming to parents and the community,” she said. “We are not looking at metal detectors. We are not going to put bulletproof glass in our doors. We don't want our kids to go to class in a place that looks like a prison.”

Conway said teachers across the district reported that some children came to school with questions and concerns on Monday, which they were either able to answer or refer them back to their parents. “Our counselors were ready, and were in classrooms throughout the day,” Conway said. “Teachers said things went well, and in all cases they reassured children that they were safe. School really did progress as normal, but we are hyper-vigilant this week.”

Vernon police also met with the superintendent and her staff to get feedback on current procedures, and the police are stepping up patrols of the schools, including within the school hallways.

Lt. John Kelley, Conway said, had been working on a larger police presence in the schools, even before the events of last week. She said that children's familiarity with police is also crucial, especially where there is not already a school resource officer.

“They will know that the police officer is a friend and a protector, and that these are good people and are part of our community,” Conway said.

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