Stillman: Vigilance of all parties required in school safety issue

The lesson of the day was school security in Connecticut.

The working group dedicated to that aspect of our Bipartisan Task Force on Gun Violence Prevention and Children's Safety held a public hearing two weeks ago and learned about a comprehensive cross-section of ideas about how we might better protect children while they're in school.

As I listened to testimony from nearly 100 people, I thought perhaps the biggest surprise of the day was the relatively muted call for airtight, heavily fortified school buildings. Which is not to say there weren't salient suggestions for improved video surveillance, upgraded entrance and check-in procedures, and enhanced panic and alarm systems.

One suggestion among these I think has particular merit: creating something of a two-stage entry system in which access for each must be confirmed by school personnel. But the prevailing sense I had was that any attempt to create impervious school buildings across and throughout Connecticut would be ill-advised, impractical and expensive.

There was a fair amount of discussion about the desirable presence of armed law enforcement in schools. Many districts already employ private security services or school resource officers. But in this the challenge becomes a numbers game: how many of these officers sufficiently guard against all eventualities and how much will it cost to adequately train and compensate them?

The bulk of the testimony that day seemed directed toward measures we might take to help and protect against people who might act out and attack a school rather than any specific hypothetical attack. A repeated call for the active, in-school presence of more counselors, psychologists and social workers was undeniable. Many of those who spoke underscored an ongoing need to identify those who might need help adjusting and provide an early, formal diagnosis - and services - where and when appropriate.

The police chief at the University of Connecticut described the "threat assessment team" in place on campus there, a collaborative effort comprised of administrators, law enforcement personnel and mental health experts. The focus of this team is on observed anti-social behavior among students, and then a determination is made about whether or not mental health services are - or should be - part of the picture.

This collective approach to school security seemed very familiar to me; it struck me how similar it is to the group assembled to help formulate Individualized Education Plans (IEP) for students struggling to keep up with their schoolwork who are thought to need remedial help, strategies, or accommodations. IEPs are most effective and help countless students. It makes perfect sense to me that students troubled in other aspects of their lives might be helped in this fashion as well.

Another common theme repeatedly addressed in testimony is the value of open and clear communication between all parties. Within each school an established chain of command among students, teachers and administrators is absolutely essential and everyone involved must be well-versed in the proper response to all manner of emergencies. And as those responsible for each school reassess their specific crisis protocol in the coming weeks and months, a comparable chain of command and working relationships with local law enforcement and other first responders is a priority.

One of those who testified two weeks ago was state Department of Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor, who emphasized how a school must be "warm and inviting," even as it is "safe and secure." The best way to strike that balance in terms of school security will be the result of unwavering vigilance of all parties.

ANDREA STILLMAN REPRESENTS THE 20TH SENATORIAL DISTRICT, WHICH INCLUDES NEW LONDON, WATERFORD, EAST LYME, OLD LYME, OLD SAYBROOK, SALEM, MONTVILLE, AND BOZRAH.

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