Consensus building around improving school security

Hartford - State lawmakers in the School Safety Working Group are beginning to reach consensus on how to protect schoolchildren in the wake of the Newtown shootings.

"A lot of it is pretty straightforward," state Rep. Andrew Fleischmann, D-West Hartford, said. "Everyone around the table agreed that certain items should be eligible for school construction. Everyone agreed that the former program that we had for school safety grants was good and should be brought back."

Fleischmann is co-chairman of the working group, which is part of the legislature's Bipartisan Task Force on Gun Violence Prevention and Children's Safety.

The areas of consensus include mandating that each local and regional board of education establish a school district safety committee and that local law enforcement participate in crisis response drills at schools; re-authorizing local school security grants; and expanding professional development to include some of the safety training activities.

The working group heard from two school security experts about assessing threatening student behavior, among other things.

The safety committees would include administrators, teachers, local health officials and parents, according to the working group's list of potential action items. Plans would have to be widely distributed and renewed annually. The mandate also might include standards such as limiting access to one main entrance, automatic locks, a buzz-in security system and call buttons to central office staff.

The working group might propose increasing the number of crisis response drills in schools to one every other month. Crisis response drills could include evacuation or lockdown drills. State Sen. Dante Bartolomeo, D-Meriden, said she was concerned about teachers taking drills seriously.

"They (school district officials) described to me situations of where the protocol was to meet in the gym and the teacher just kind of said OK, we met in the gym," Bartolomeo said.

The working group co-chairmen responded by saying law enforcement could be required to sign off on the drills.

Many legislators also agreed on the importance of re-authorizing school security grants. How much reimbursement would be provided remained a question. The previous grant in 2007 covered 20 percent to 80 percent of the cost of school security-related items, according to the working group's list of potential action items.

State Sen. Andrea Stillman, D-Waterford, asked that the installation of such things as bulletproof glass in schools be reimbursable, and other legislators agreed.

Based on previous advice and the experts who spoke on Wednesday, legislators also agreed that including active shooter training, which might involve listening to the sounds of actual gunshots, could be included in professional development activities.

Simulated active shooter drills better prepare teachers for real school-shooting situations, said David Bernstein, a clinical forensic psychologist for Forensic Consultants.

At the meeting, Bernstein recommended creating a threat assessment or behavioral assessment team in each school. A vice principal, school psychologist and an external forensic psychologist would serve on each team, he said.

An event such as the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown can't be predicted, but 95 percent of school shooters attend the school they attack, Bernstein said. About 80 percent of the time, there is a leak - someone knows about the shooting and could have reported it, he said.

He said there is no profile of a school shooter, but there are "red flags," such as someone showing a fascination with weapons or guns. Negative postings on social media sites also could be a sign, Bernstein said.

Some of the greatest risk factors for school shootings include bullying, depression with suicidal thoughts and access to weapons, he said.

Teachers and school officials often feel helpless when it comes to preventing such events, which is why it is important to train threat assessment teams to handle the possibility of a threat, Bernstein said.

Both Bernstein and Scott Corzine, senior vice president of Rick Solutions International, recommended that schools use some system of anonymous reporting to pick up on bullying and suspicious behavior. At that age, kids don't "snitch," Corzine said.

His main recommendation was for Connecticut to implement a "comprehensive emergency management" program similar to ones he has worked on in Nevada and Delaware. The program would range from risk assessments and strengthening school infrastructure to creating a plan to help victims and schools recover after a shooting.

It would cost several million dollars to implement in the state's 195 school districts and would take two to three years to implement, he said.

State Sen. Mike McLachlan, R-Danbury, said he wanted to know why the working group wasn't providing more concrete recommendations and perhaps one of the existing models to school districts.

Fleischmann said it may make sense for the state "to have a short-term plan and a longer-game plan, the short-term plan being, OK we have the following standards based on certain national standards like incident command structure."

He added, "I want to have a statewide system that is unified and strong. I get a sense that it takes a few years to get there. … I am suggesting a two-step approach."

The working group is expected to provide recommendations to Senate and House leaders on Friday.

j.somers@theday.com

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