Taskforce pushes school security, mental health

Two months after the shooting at Sandy Hook, state legislators are moving forward with efforts to fortify Connecticut schools against future threats.

A part of the state’s Bipartisan Task Force on Gun Violence Protection and Children’s Safety, the school security subcommittee put forward a set of recommendations last Friday aimed at refurbishing current security infrastructure and providing additional mental health resources in the state’s schools. The recommendations fall under four broad categories — school infrastructure, personnel, emergency plans and violence prevention efforts. Though the full bipartisan task force had originally planned to deliver an omnibus bill by the end of February, the school security working group is the first and thus far only one of the task force’s three groups to submit its proposals.

State Sen. Toni Boucher, the Republican co-chair of the working group, said that support for the proposals was unanimous among subcommittee members. As part of updated infrastructure systems, the group has proposed re-establishing the School Security Competitive Grant Program -— first begun in 2007 — that would allow schools to compete for additional money to update security systems. If a particular district is awarded with funds from the program, it will then have to devise fortification measures that comply with new security standards dictated by the Department of Education. The group recommended that additional security renovations — including ballistic glass, electronic locks and double-door vestibules at the entrance of a school — be eligible for funding.

Boucher said the Newtown shooting changed how parents see school safety and has led to a renewed focus on security.

“Everyone thought that, when they sent their kid to school, that was the safest possible environment,” she said. “But that’s no longer true. What we can do is be as prepared as possible and prepare for that eventuality.”

In addition to new infrastructure standards, the group’s plan calls for schools to implement crisis drills that would test the school’s readiness to shield its students from harm. If implemented, crisis drills and other preparedness measures would be reviewed by local police and fire department officials to ensure their effectiveness.

Notably, Boucher said the subcommittee decided against proposing arming school staff and teachers, which is a solution that has been floated by leaders of the National Rifle Association. She estimated that 80 percent of the group’s members were opposed to such a measure.

Diane Harp Jones, the CEO of the American Institute of Architects Connecticut Chapter, who testified at the working group’s public hearing in January, cautioned that the working group should not make uniform recommendations to schools across the state. She said different schools — especially those in urban areas in contrast to rural areas -— require very different security measures, which must account for various campus layouts and surrounding areas. When considering upgrading security standards at a school, she added, it is crucial to first gather input from the community.

“We urged the committee to understand that one size doesn’t fit all,” she said. “You cannot say, ‘You should implement A, B and C, because those strategies will only benefit school A, school B and school C.’”

For its part, the New Haven Public School District does not stand to benefit greatly from the working group’s recommendations. NHPS spokeswoman Abbe Smith said that many of the proposed standards already exist for the Elm City. Through the district’s school construction program, it has ensured that all new schools are equipped with updated security technology, such as camera systems and remote buzzer systems. All teachers working for NHPS are trained in the latest security procedures. The district was considered so far ahead of the curve, Smith added, that NHPS Superintendent Reginald Mayo testified at the January hearing to provide insight and guide the subcommittee’s efforts.

In addition to physical safety measures, Boucher’s working group recommended greater access to mental health resources in schools. Specifically, her school required that greater systems be put in place to provide individualized therapy to students exhibiting violent tendencies and to hire behavioral intervention specialists.

But Glen Gollenberg, an architect at the Glastonbury-based firm SLAM Collaborative, suggested that all the updates combined cannot guarantee schools’ safety against a freak occurrence such as Sandy Hook.

“You can’t design for every event that might happen,” he said. “And at some point there are cost implications for what might be achievable, as well.”

The gun violence prevention and mental health working groups are due to deliver their recommendations to the full bipartisan task force in early March.

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