Increased police presence meets students at local schools
At Deans Mill School in Stonington Monday morning, a police cruiser parked conspicuously at the entrance to the school. Inside, Officer Edward Cullen patrolled the corridors.
Similar scenes could be found at schools across the region, but officials said that Monday — the first day of school since Friday's shootings in Newtown — was business as usual.
A discussion of school safety is ongoing in many communities, including at meetings tonight in Norwich and Wednesday in Old Lyme, East Lyme and Griswold.
Superintendent of Schools James Lombardo said in a Sunday letter to parents that the school district will continue to provide a safe environment for students. Counselors are available in every school, he said.
Discussing safety procedures now under review, he said all school entrances will be locked beginning this week. Visitors to the elementary and middle schools will need to use a security buzzer before entering. Personnel will allow entry to the high school only after a "visual identification," he said. Police also will be present in the schools this week.
The schools will begin collecting donations today for Newtown's schools. Parents, students and staff members can contribute to the fund drive at the main office of each public school, according to Lombardo.
An unsubstantiated but persistent rumor about a student bringing a gun to school has prompted the use of metal detectors at Fitch High School, Interim Superintendent John Ramos said.
"The rumor got a life of its own over the weekend through social media," Ramos said. "In the context of what's going on in Newtown, we've taken a couple of extra steps to be extra vigilant."
Police and school officials plan to use hand-held wands to check random students starting today and continuing through the week. Ramos said the threat was investigated by police before the Newtown shooting Friday and was related to Dec. 21 and the prophesy that the world would end that day.
Police from the town and city departments were stationed at each school in Groton on Monday morning and will be there again Tuesday. Two officers will be stationed at Fitch for the rest of the week.
"Everyone is working hard to be extra diligent and aware during this time … when we're grieving," Ramos said.
He said he met with school officials Friday to review and reinforce security protocols, and made the school community aware of crisis team availability for students and staff. Ramos met again with police and school officials Monday afternoon.
Teachers and staff were prepared Monday morning to answer questions about the Newtown shootings, and were ready with help for anyone who needed it.
"What we emphasized today is maintaining a routine,'' Superintendent Nicholas Fischer said Monday afternoon.
He sent emails to school principals over the weekend and the heads of each school met with their staffs Monday morning to discuss what they should and should not say and how to deal with a crisis. Psychologists and social workers were standing by if needed, Fischer said.
"As I was walking around the schools today, my sense was is all went smoothly,'' he said.
Officials will have a public meeting today to discuss school safety.
Superintendent Abby I. Dolliver said the meeting would give parents a chance to share concerns. She said police and fire officials would be on hand to discuss the school's safety procedures.
Dolliver said central office staff went to the schools Monday morning and found it was " business as usual." Staff also held an early morning meeting to discuss the tragedy.
She said she plans to meet with school principals today to see whether any issues arose.
Norwich Free Academy Head of School David Klein recorded a morning television message reminding students of the support and assistance available to them on campus. The NFA Crisis Response Team met, and the school has communicated with parents and teachers via phone and email.
Police Chief Louis J. Fusaro said that in addition to the two school resource officers and three DARE officers normally assigned to the middle and elementary schools, officers on patrol have been instructed to stop in and out of the schools throughout the day for the immediate future. He said he also will be meeting this week with Dolliver to review security procedures.
Montville Police Lt. Leonard Bunnell said the department posted officers outside all of the town's schools Monday during the arrival and dismissal of students. The effort included two private school, St. Bernard and St. Thomas More. He said the department plans to continue the extra patrols today.
"In an effort to put people at ease, we're trying to provide a little more visibility," Bunnell said. "We want to reassure not only the administration but the children that we're close by."
Superintendent of Schools Joseph Onofrio II said faculty at Salem School began Monday with a staff meeting to formulate a plan on how to help the elementary and middle school students.
Onofrio said a handful of parents kept students at home Monday because of the Newtown incident. Otherwise, the school tried to allow children to have their normal routines and activities.
"I think that's what we all hope for — that our children can be insulated from the horror," Onofrio said.
Police were at each of the six public schools as well as Pine Point School and St. Michael School in Stonington on Monday, and that will continue for the foreseeable future, according to Police Chief J. Darren Stewart.
At the police station Monday morning, Stewart, Capt. Jerry Desmond, First Selectmen Ed Haberek, Superintendent of Schools Van Riley, Pine Point Head of School Stephen Bennhoff and St. Michael Principal Doris Messina met for more than an hour to review school security.
They also agreed to set up a task force that will look at issues such as the physical characteristics of the buildings, assets and potential use of new technology.
The schools also made sure police have updated information on details such as school layouts and class schedules.
"We have to make sure these children are safe and we'll do that," Riley said.
They said it was business as usual at their schools Monday morning with no formal program to discuss what happened with children.
However teachers and counselors were available to talk with any students or staff members who wanted to talk with someone about what happened. They said those discussions would be done in an age appropriate way.
Police on Friday reviewed safety measures at each school and information for parents about how to talk to their children about the tragedy was posted on the school website.
On Monday, police officers were stationed at each of the district's six schools, including the Friendship School.
"We wanted to assure the kids that the schools are safe,'' Superintendent Jerome R. Belair said. "All in all, we had a good day. We did our very best to return to normalcy, but as adults in the education community, our hearts were aching."
The middle school had an extended homeroom so students could talk with their teachers. The shooting was discussed in some high school classes. At the elementary level, teachers and staff took their cues from the students.
"It was not us initiating the conversation,'' he said.
Jeffrey A. Johnson and Izaskun Larraneta also contributed to this report.
Focusing on school safety
Norwich: School officials will have a public meeting 6 p.m. Tuesday at the Kelly Middle School to discuss school safety procedures.
Lyme/Old Lyme: A meeting will be held at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday at Lyme-Old Lyme High School to discuss the impact the tragedy has had on the school system. Town leaders, resident troopers and school board members will be present.
East Lyme: A community forum will be held at 6 p.m. Wednesday at East Lyme High School to discuss school security. School administrators, safety officers and board members, as well as town police and First Selectman Paul Formica, will be present.
Griswold: A vigil will be held on Wednesday at 7 p.m. at the Griswold Veteran's Memorial Park located at the intersection of Ashland and Hill streets in the Jewett City section of town. Those who attend are asked to provide their own cellphones, candles or flashlight.
What would it cost?
With many local communities posting police officers at all their schools Monday, some residents may be wondering what it would cost to do this permanently.
In Stonington for example, Police Chief J. Darren Stewart said Monday that the town likely would need to hire six new officers to cover its six schools at a cost of about $450,000 to $500,000 a year.
If the total cost were passed on to the taxpayers, a 0.16-mill increase in the tax rate would result. With that tax increase, a person with a home assessed at $250,000 would pay an additional $40 a year in taxes, according to Director of Finance Maryanna Stevens.
Currently, police Youth Officer Tim Marley spends time in all the schools each week.
- Joe Wojtas
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