Aldermen discuss school safety proposals

In the aftermath of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings, Elm City officials are increasing efforts to prevent and eradicate school violence.

The Board of Aldermen and New Haven Public School officials convened Tuesday to discuss possible improvements to the city’s safety procedures. Proposed changes included increased security guard training and police involvement as well the installation of alarms and signaling systems in district schools. Having inspected six schools prior to the meeting, aldermen voiced dissatisfaction with what they found to be an inadequate security guard presence and insufficient safety equipment.

“We have suggestions and want to hear what improvements the Board of Education wants to put into place,” said Alfreda Edwards, chair of the education committee and Ward 19 alderman.

Ward 16 alderman Migdalia Castro said at the meeting that she noticed that some schools, including Clinton Avenue School, had no cameras installed. After visiting four high schools, Ward 18 alderman Salvatore DeCola suggested installing panic buttons — allowing direct contact with the police department — as well as doors that would give signals to security guards when opened.

William Clark, chief operating officer of NHPS’s Business and Finance Department, said that newer schools already have panic buttons in place, keycard entry systems, security cameras and alarm systems that give the schools “the highest security we’ve ever had.” He plans to eventually retrofit older schools with these newer state-of-the-art security systems, a process that he estimates would cost over $1 million.

Aldermen also requested routine tests of locking mechanisms. Currently, the school department limits lock inspections to occasional drills and operates on a work-order system in which locking systems are checked only if teachers file a complaint.

The need for more updated safety equipment was not the board’s only concern. Visiting L.W. Beecher Museum School of Arts and Sciences, a school with one security staff member, alderman Brian Wingate commented that entry into the school appeared dangerously easy.

“[Beecher] is a large school for one security guard to monitor all those kids,” Wingate said. “If there was a situation where something totally went wrong, it wouldn’t be enough.”

Dean Esserman, New Haven Police Department chief and founder of Elm City’s School Resource Officer Program, proposed putting security guards through an updated active shooter training class, for which they would attend a one-day program. Additionally, school staff and administrators would receive training in how to act in an emergency situation.

While eight interviewed New Haven public school students said their schools have a system of security guards, the New Haven Police Department has a team of only seven school resource officers — trained police officers assigned to a school full time. Esserman hopes to increase this number to over 16. In addition to the school resource officers, all 500 members of the NHPD are trained in a post-Columbine regimen called the Active Shooter Threat Training Program, in which officers learn how to handle armed attackers.

“We have the most wonderful [security] staff you can find,” said Dwight Ware, director of security for NHPS, who also commended the partnership between security, the principals and the police department.

Five out of the eight New Haven public school students interviewed do not share Ware’s optimism. Thomas Jordan, a student at James Hillhouse High School, said he thinks his school has flaws in its security procedures.

“Anyone can get in those [front] doors,” Jordan said. “Security doesn’t check all the time. It’s not safe because people can go through other doors and have anything in their bookbag.”

Other Hillhouse students reported that gang members sneak knives and guns into school property, an occurrence one student said has “happened a lot.” However, most fights only involve fists and occur in hidden areas such as secluded corners or bathrooms, he added.

“On Friday there were four fights, and the teachers didn’t know anything about it,” Jordan said.

But in spite of these fights, estimated by one student to occur about three times a week, three out of eight students said they feel safe overall.

“Kids definitely do mess with each other, but there is a support system here,” said high school student Nakpangi Ali. “If people found out someone was having an issue, they would defend them.”

Ali admitted that her school’s metal detector checks could be more thorough, but commended the security guards for becoming “a lot more strict.”

The state is considering a proposal that would award $15 million in grant money to upgrade school security.

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