State considering school safety plan standards

HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — School systems across Connecticut already have emergency plans, but some lawmakers and school officials say minimum standards, more mandatory drills and additional training should be considered following the deadly massacre last month in Newtown.

"We know that there are districts that have excellent plans and that those plans are properly practiced," said Rep. Andrew Fleischmann, D-West Hartford, co-chairman of the legislature's Education Committee. "It may be the case that there are districts out there with weak plans that are not practiced often enough. And that means every child in those school districts is at great risk. In the wake of Newtown, that's not acceptable."

He called the current state statutes vague. Local districts are not required to submit their emergency plans to the state for review, nor required to notify the state when they've conducted the security drills mandated by state law.

"I think we need to know how safe and secure all our schools are and I think that's something the committee should look at," said Sen. Andrea Stillman, D-Waterford, co-chairman of the legislature's Education Committee.

Last month, a gunman blasted his way into Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown and killed 20 children and six educators before committing suicide as he heard police approaching.

A 2009 state law requires school boards to substitute monthly fire drills with a crisis response drill once every three months. Those are coordinated with local emergency officials and there's no requirement that the state be notified when they're conducted.

Among those in favor of stricter mandates is Newtown's superintendent.

"We need to do it more because those kinds of emergencies are not ingrained in us," Newtown Superintendent of Schools Janet Robinson said of the emergency drills.

In a recent interview with The Associated Press, Robinson said she made it a priority to beef up security throughout the district after arriving in Newtown five years ago. The district hired a security director and added more security staff, except at the elementary schools where she said officials "never thought we'd need one." The district also has buzz-in systems at all schools except the high school and regularly conducts lockdown drills.

While the buzz-in system at Sandy Hook has been credited with slowing down the gunman Dec. 14, it couldn't prevent the massacre.

"An AR-15. I mean, there's nothing that's going to stop that," Robinson said, referring to the military-style rifle used in the shooting.

Robinson said she believes the state can do more to help districts.

"We need training. We need someone who has expertise in these things to conduct training in the state so those of us who have the responsibility of protecting students know what we should be doing to prevent them. And when it does happen, what are the protocols," Robinson said.

The state should consider imposing some general standards for districts' emergency plans, said Peter Girardi, school resource officer and coordinator/trainer of emergency management for Killingly Public Schools.

"They need to identify something that sets a standard, a general standard of compliance for school districts," he said, adding how it should then be left up to the local districts to determine what they need to do.

Girardi said his district conducts more crisis drills than required and used state funding made available about six years ago to install new technology, such as video cameras and buzz-in systems. But in the wake of Sandy Hook, he said the town's school board is reviewing emergency management preparedness and has scheduled a Jan. 23 meeting to discuss the issue with parents.

William R. Glass, the assistant superintendent of schools in Danbury, said his district published a comprehensive emergency plan in 2006 and required all 17 schools to have their own plans based on it. The plans range from sheltering in place and getting students to the safest place possible if a gunman enters the building to soft lockdowns, when students can still move around the building but cannot leave.

"We routinely send out a note to our folks and meet with our principals and make sure you guys are adhering to your plan," he said, adding that plans are refreshed annually. He said he believes the vast majority of Connecticut schools are taking similar precautions, especially in the wake of Sandy Hook.

But in a time of scarce resources, Glass said he would encourage lawmakers to focus on the state of mental health care, in addition to stepped up security measures.

"The primary thing that we need to look at is mental health and how we approach mental health issues, and early detection of children that are clearly showing signs that something is wrong," he said. "Protection will not do it alone."

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