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Stonington — One of the town's elementary schools is serving as a test site for a new security upgrade police hope will speed response time in a crisis.
The West Vine Street School is now equipped with a panic button system that not only sounds an alarm in the school but also simultaneously notifies emergency dispatchers, town police, fire and highway departments of a potential threat at the school. Buttons are installed throughout the school, including in classrooms.
Town officials said they think the system can serve as a model statewide as schools grapple with ways to enhance security in the wake of the Dec. 14 school shooting in Newtown.
In a demonstration at the school on Tuesday that included active shooter training, Stonington Police Capt. Jerry Desmond said officers would receive the alert in their cars and on portable radios while cameras already monitoring the schools focus on the school where the alert was activated. Doors in the school would close automatically.
"We're here to protect the most valuable assets in this community — our children," Desmond said.
The system, which costs about $10,000, eliminates the need for school staff to dial 911, saving precious seconds, maybe even minutes, he said.
"At a time when the state government can't offer much in the way of resources, those of us on the front line in towns and cities have to find a way to do all we can with what we have," Police Commission Chairman Scott Bates said.
School board Chairwoman Gail MacDonald said the town took a proactive approach to safety and is hoping to avoid suggestions or mandates from the state that may not be a good fit.
A cross-section of town departments worked collaboratively to develop and fund the new system.
Desmond said the town already was ahead of the curve in terms of safety when the shooting in Newtown occurred. Stonington schools use a card reader system that checks licenses of visitors against the sex offender registry. The school also uses a color-coded light alert system notifying students of a possible threat or evacuation.
After the Newtown shooting, police met with school officials, the fire department and the police commission to develop a plan that was backed by the school board. Response protocols were updated, and a police presence has been maintained at the schools.
Superintendent Van Riley said the new system is reassurance for staff that help in the event of a crisis is not far.
"My hope is that it works well and it can be expanded into other schools," Riley said.
Desmond said the system will continue to be tested through the start of the new school year.
The system is similar in ways to something Westerly police have been using for more than three decades to catch burglars, Westerly Police Chief Edward St. Clair said. The chief said an alert system is sometimes installed in a commercial building that has been targeted by thieves in order to get a quick response when the next break-in occurs.
"To use it for something like this is innovative," St. Clair said. "I'd like to see how it works."