Town tackles issue of school safety

By Melanie Savage - Staff Writer
Franklin - posted Tue., Jan. 8, 2013

Echoing a scene that has played out in countless cafeterias, auditoriums and gymnasiums since the tragic school shooting in Newtown, Conn., parents gathered at Franklin Elementary School the evening of Jan. 7 to discuss school safety. Ostensibly the public hearing was scheduled in reaction to an incident that occurred at the school on Dec. 19, when a 12-year-old was arrested and suspended for making a gun-related threat. Police investigated, found no evidence of a weapon, and determined the threat to be false. The student was suspended from school but scheduled to return on Jan. 7.

Though vague references were made regarding the Dec. 19 incident, the bulk of the Jan. 7 hearing focused on school safety in general, with many references to the Newtown shooting. Franklin Elementary School Principal Chris Hempel opened with an overview of security measures already in place, including regularly-scheduled lockdown drills, a buzzer and badge system for visitors, yearly safety reviews with the fire marshal, a safety committee and a school climate plan designed to foster proactive means of reducing school violence. Hempel also outlined numerous ways that administration, staff and the school board had identified for enhancing safety in response to both Newtown and the local incident.

Board of Education Chair Peter Calvert then oversaw a public comment forum. Among the questions he asked was whether residents were in favor of weapons in school, “if they’re handled by professionals.” A show of hands revealed that approximately half of the large crowd favored armed security within the school building.

Among those in favor were Susan and Bud Avdevich, both retired police officers with grandchildren in the school system. Susan, retired from the UConn Police Department, recommended sharing a resident state trooper with another town. “You cannot protect everybody from the crazy people,” she said, asking about the response time from Troop K to the school. When told it varied between three and 10 minutes (10 minutes was the reported response time for the Newtown shooting), Avdevich suggested that retired police officers might be willing to work for very little money to protect the school. Bud, a retired police sergeant from Norwich, favored the on-site approach. “I think it really boils down to having somebody in the school,” he said, noting that 10 minutes is “a long time.”

Tom and Linda Craney, parents of a high school student and two children at the elementary school, suggested that there were problems at the school that preceded both Newtown and the Dec. 19 incident. “We’ve seen this dog and pony show before,” said Tom, suggesting that administration would get started on a solution but then “someone drops the ball.” School leadership “has failed us,” said Craney.

Hempel and Calvert pointed out that much of the problem lies in understaffing due to budget constraints. Calvert said the board had faith in school leadership, but with the district flat-funded for the past four years, there was simply not enough money for adequate staffing.

Board of Finance Chair Richard Handfield pointed out that an armed security guard, including benefits, would cost in the neighborhood of $100,000, which equated to a half a mil increase in taxes. With the budget season just beginning, Handfield encouraged residents to get involved. “Parents do not vote,” he said. “You have to get your friends, other parents, out to vote.”

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