School safety remains hot topic in Hartford

Hartford — They had discussed numerous intrusion scenarios, how to buy time and notify teachers and even whether she would risk her life to protect schoolchildren, said Gerald Stomski, first selectman of Woodbury.

"Not on my watch would anyone be able to enter our school," Stomski said Dawn Hochsprung had told her when they worked together in Woodbury. Hochsprung, principal of Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, died while attempting to stop gunman Adam Lanza in the Dec. 14 school shooting that left 28 people dead.

"It is my belief she did everything right," Stomski said.

Infrastructure, personnel, emergency plans, mental health in schools and best practices were all discussed at the legislature's school safety subcommittee meeting Friday. How to prevent a student from becoming the next Adam Lanza and how to physically stop a shooter were also discussed at length.

Access controls, which could include a foyer containment system or a parking lot monitored by cameras, could be added to even the most sophisticated schools in Connecticut, said state Rep. Andrew Fleischmann, D-West Hartford.

Arming teachers or guards was another option those at the meeting discussed as a way of making schools safer.

Waterford police Lt. David Burton said he did not personally recommend arming teachers and guards.

"What kind of course are you going to put these individuals through?" Burton said in a phone interview after the meeting. Until questions are answered about what level of training these people would get, he said, he was not in favor of arming teachers and guards.

Armed police officers at schools, though, is a different story.

"If funding wasn't a problem, yes, I would put a police officer at every school," Burton said. "But I'm a realist — that is not going to occur because there's just not that much money available."

Waterford's middle school and high school happen to each have an armed police officer assigned to them through the School Resource Officer program. The officer is trained to do exactly what police officers do, which includes tactical shooting, Burton said.

Stopping an individual with a weapon is a very "fluid" process, Burton said. Someone who isn't trained for those situations, "we don't know what you're going to do, what you're going to be capable of," he said.

Some at the meeting Friday said they didn't want to see more police in the school system.

Sarah Esty, a policy fellow at Connecticut Voices for Children, said the data suggests that the number of students arrested in schools increases as the number of police officers in schools increases. Students are more frequently arrested for minor or low-level offenses than for major crimes such as using a weapon, she said.

The problem with arrests is that once a student is arrested, he or she is more likely to return to the juvenile system, said Lara Herscovitch, a senior policy analyst at the Connecticut Juvenile Justice Alliance. Juveniles are also more likely to "graduate into the adult criminal system," she said.

Several people who spoke at the meeting said they wanted to see more social workers in the school system to help identify students who need mental-health support.

"At a minimum, there should be one school social worker at each school," said Susan Peck, a school social worker in Torrington. Social workers in schools provide students with someone they can feel comfortable speaking with, she said.

Steve Karp, executive director for the National Association of Social Workers, said school social workers can provide mental-health support and counseling and be a part of the community. "The child who we can catch early on, in elementary, junior or middle school, we can help," he said.

Though Friday's meeting was designed to address school safety, guns and mental health issues crept into the conversation as well.

"We have to look at what the other two subcommittees propose as well because it … is more wide-sweeping than just school security," said state Sen. Andrea Stillman, D-Waterford. "So many have talked about social workers and mental health professionals in the schools, so we'll be looking to see what comes out of the suggestion box from the (entire committee)."

j.somers@theday.com

Editor's note: This version clarifies that the school safety subcommittee is part of the state legislature's Bipartisan Task Force on Gun Violence Prevention and Children's Safety.

 

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