There's room for improvement when it comes to keeping Branford's school safe.
At last week's Board of Education (BOE) meeting, Superintendent of Schools Hamlet Hernandez outlined the results of his safety review of the district's school buildings. Although many measures are already in place, better technology, upgrades, and additional practices can improve the margin of safety, he said.
Among key areas reviewed were building procedures for visitors, having the ability for direct communications with police and first responders on a moment's notice, internal communications within the school, announcement systems within the schools system, and use of surveillance cameras.
Hernandez also said he's been working closely with Branford Chief of Police Kevin Halloran on the Emergency Operations Plan, which includes communications practices already in places. Although he prefers not to call it a "panic button," Hernandez said all school buildings do have a direct communications means to reach first responders.
"I don't like the nomenclature of a panic button, because in these difficult situations, panic is that last thing you want," Hernandez said. "With the press of a button, the message goes out immediately to first responders."
Internal radio systems used by school administrators and facility personnel can be monitored by first responders as well, he said.
"The radios we have, the local police and fire department can go on those frequencies and monitor what's happening in a building before they even get to a building, so first responders know what they're walking into," said Hernandez. "It could be a natural disaster?and we may need to get information out to first responders while simultaneously doing internal actions, whether it be a lock-down or evacuation."
When an emergency calls for first responders, Hernandez said, "school officials do not make the determination relative to the level of response. We present the situation and the first responders would then make that determination."
As for improving safety building by building, Hernandez had several recommendations. They include upgrading locks and updating post-9/11 buzz-in door-lock release mechanisms to an "instant lock." The district is also looking into adding "soft line" and "hard line" entry procedures, whereby a visitor is identified outside the building, buzzed in through outer doors to reach the foyer, then identified again and buzzed in a second set of doors to access the building. Other improvements include standardizing visitors' badges at all schools, clamping down on sign-in procedures, and improving video surveillance technology and/or quality. A priority is to evaluate public address (P.A.) systems in each building and address any problems, said Hernandez.
"Just being in the schools [recently], my wish and my desire is to seek the funding so those systems can be adequately tested and appropriately updated so we do not leave it to chance. The systems work in general, but we are also maintaining those systems and they are older, refurbished systems," he said.
Most building P.A. systems were refurbished in 2010. Hernandez said he wanted to get a P.A. testing report "by building, by classroom, by space; and if we're at 99.9 percent, great-but let's fix that one percent."
Hernandez also noted that complacency needs to be addressed in the school buildings, whether it's neglecting to assign a visitor's badge to an outside contractor or leaving a door ajar.
"There's going to be an inconvenience in this day and age, but that's easy stuff that prevents a tremendous amount of things from occurring," said Hernandez, adding, "If anybody's jarring doors, that's wrong, and I encourage anybody who does see that to report that to administration so we can discourage that and extinguish it. One time is one time too many."
Hernandez also discussed the progress being made to bring a school resource officer (SRO) to Walsh Intermediate School. The SRO would be a paid officer of the Branford Police Department. Hernandez said he felt the town should make a commitment to the investment.
"As I continue an [SRO] dialogue with the police chief, I would hope funding does not become the reason we do not do that," said Hernandez, adding grant money should be sought if town money isn't available.
Hernandez and Halloran are also working to reconstitute a School Safety Committee. The plan is to "start off small, and bring people to the table as we see fit, based on the plan we're reviewing," said Hernandez, adding, "I can't speak highly enough about the police chief's willingness to collaborate and his concern that we have safe schools."
Funding many of the building security upgrades will mean asking the town for financial support, said BOE Chairman Frank Carrano.
"Hopefully, we can expect some kind of report at our March meeting, which would include some more specific plans for improving on some of these systems," Carrano told Hernandez, adding, "All of which could, and probably will, lead to a financial request that we would submit to the Board of Finance."