School safety statewide has ramped up in wake of Sandy Hook

By Janice Steinhagen - Staff Writer
Connecticut - posted Sat., Dec. 14, 2013
- Contributed Photo

In the year that has passed since the tragic shootings at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., where 20 students and six school staff members lost their lives, school officials, emergency responders and parents across the nation have struggled with maintaining a safe environment in public schools. “The call to our schools was, ‘What are you doing to assure that our kids are safe?’ – not in an accusatory way, but in a pleading way,” said Paul Smith, superintendent of the Griswold public schools. The universal thought, he said, was, “if an elementary school isn’t safe, then what [is] safe?”

To respond to these fears, the state of Connecticut has released a total of $21 million in grant monies to the state’s school districts to beef up security in schools. The latest installment of $16 million, released last month, is aimed at improvements in school infrastructure to ramp up security in a total of 111 school districts.

Scott DeVico, spokesman for the state’s Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection, said that the funds were tied to the gun control bill passed in April by the state legislature. The bill bans the sale of large-capacity magazines, requires background checks for private gun sales, and expands an existing ban on assault weapons to include more than 100 models.

The latest release of funds means that every school district that applied for the grant money in the initial round will receive its request, said DeVico. “Some of the more prevalent things we saw in the applications were bullet-proof glass, security cameras, computer-controlled locks, buzzers and entry alarms systems, and panic alarms,” he said. A total of 604 schools will benefit from the funds, and another round of applications is expected in 2014, he said. 

While inner-city school districts have been living with stepped-up security measures for a long time, even small school districts began re-examining their procedures in the wake of Sandy Hook. In the rural town of Voluntown (population 2,600), an open community meeting with school and emergency response personnel was held a month after the shootings to discuss ways to improve school security. The take-away message was that school security procedures would be heightened, but that the details might not be publicized, so as to thwart efforts to evade them.

But Norwich, which has 3,800 children in its elementary and middle schools, was ahead of the curve, said the district’s business administrator Athena Nagel. Grant money received five years ago from the federal Department of Homeland Security allowed the district to beef up security systems at its schools, she said.

In addition, each of the two middle schools has a full-time resource officer from the city’s police force. “We had them before Sandy Hook, so it’s pretty much a way of life” for students, Nagel said. She said the officers are perceived by students less as extra security than as “another adult individual they can build bonds with, a place to go when they need someone to talk to.”

School security policies are posted right on the doors of Norwich public schools, said Nagel. Parents must drop their children off at the door - they can’t walk them to their classrooms. Anyone coming to the door must remove hats or sunglasses, ring a buzzer and state their purpose to a receptionist before they are allowed into the building.

Similar policies are in place in Griswold, where most parents welcome the stepped-up security, even at the price of ease of access to their children, said Smith. “People used to say, ‘Gee, this is an unnecessary inconvenience.’ Now nobody complains about that.”

That’s less true in Norwich, said Nagel. “We still get gripes. There are still a handful of people who don’t want to [use the procedures],” she said. But there are no exceptions, even for staff members, said Nagel. “A person has to buzz to be allowed in, even if we know the person, even if they just walked out to their car and back. Even if I forget my key, I can’t get back in. I have to say what my purpose is.” 

One might predict that the spate of violent incidents in public schools in recent years might lead more parents to choose home-schooling or private schools for their children. However, there is no hard data on the matter, and public school enrollment remains fluid throughout the year. The state of Connecticut no longer keeps statistics on home-schooling families, although such families are required to register their children with their individual school districts so the home scholars are not considered truant.

State DOE officials and local superintendents alike asserted that they saw no exodus from public school in the immediate aftermath of Sandy Hook. As far as comparative safety between public and private schools, “I think public schools are much safer because they have access to much greater government funding,” said Nagel.

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