Officials looking for way to beef up police presence in schools

As visions of a weeklong holiday vacation fill students' heads, local and state officials find themselves preoccupied, in the wake of the deadly shootings in Newtown, by finding ways to establish a stronger police presence in schools.

Some districts already have school resource officers, uniformed, friendly faces roaming the halls. Resouce officers in New London, Groton, Montville, Waterford and Norwich are full-time and armed.

Other districts used to have that same constant police presence, but fell victim to state budget cuts in 2010 and eliminated the program. Now those districts are trying to find ways to bring resource officers back.

In May 2010, the state Department of Public Safety announced that the school resource officer program would be suspended in an effort to save $1.2 million.

The 19 state troopers who were school resource officers were reassigned to patrol duty. That same year, grant funding for resource officers at some of the state's technical high schools dried up, and individual departments could no longer afford to pay for the officers themselves.

State Rep. Ed Jutila, D-East Lyme, vice chairman of the state's Public Safety and Security Committee, said conversations about the issue at the state level are at a minimum because the legislature is not in session.

"A lot of us have been talking to each other, mostly about the tragic events that occurred in Newtown, but not as much (about) specific ideas for school security at this point," he said Thursday.

"I think most legislators are thinking along the same lines I am," he said. "We need to take a three-pronged attack at this, and number one is keeping weapons out of the hands of bad people. Two is trying to address the mental illness issue and three is improving security in the schools."

Jutila said school boards, administrators and parents must address security needs at individual schools.

"We in the legislature, we need to do the same thing but with a bigger-picture view, and look for ways to help local school districts implement the best possible security," he said.

Jutila said House Majority Leader Brendan Sharkey, D-Hamden, plans to establish a task force during the regular session, with leaders of a number of committees comprising the group with the "exclusive goal to prevent a tragedy like this from happening again."

He said he expects the Judiciary Committee, the Education Committee and possibly the Public Health Committee each to have a representative on the task force.

Calls to state police and the state Department of Education seeking more information on whether there are plans to add police presence in schools were not returned.

Norwich Board of Education Chairwoman Yvette Jacaruso said Thursday that her district's resource officers were instrumental in a coincidental lockdown drill that occurred last Friday at Moriarty Elementary School - the same day Adam Lanza entered Newtown's Sandy Hook Elementary School and killed 26 people before turning the gun on himself.

Norwich has two resource officerss, one at Kelly Middle School and another at Teachers' Memorial Middle School.

"We're paying their salary and benefits for 10 months and the police department pays for their salary and benefits for two months in the summertime," Jacaruso said.

Norwich schools' Business Administrator Athena Nagel said the district has budgeted approximately $100,000 each in salary and benefits for the two officers in 2013-14.

"They're very beneficial," Jacaruso said, "there's no doubt about it. They're instructors, they do home visits, they go into the classrooms, it's a very positive image in the school.

"Sometimes, they hear chatter about something that's going to happen before or after school and they can diffuse that, and that's a big help. The kids look at them not as a disciplinarian, but more of someone who can and will help them."

Inside the Region 18 schools - Lyme and Old Lyme - state police are working to find ways to provide a more constant presence without creating an overtime pay situation.

Old Lyme Resident State Trooper Gary Inglis said Thursday that he was the former resource officer for Valley Regional, Westbrook and Old Lyme schools.

He said that he'll juggle his schedule and those of the two other officers so that they can make stops at the Region 18 schools during regular shifts.

"We're certainly not that busy where we can't stop into the schools, pop in, take a walk around, talk with the kids in the morning. We'll be implementing that here without incurring overtime," Inglis said.

"We're going to try to be more visible at the schools, especially because the elementary kids are more wary of us," he said. "But we're having a good time high-fiving them and waving at them, they're so cute, the little kids. ... As an SRO, I wasn't happy about the decision to cut the program, as were a lot of the other SROs, because we dedicate our time just to the schools."

In New London, a resource officer previously was assigned to the elementary, middle and high schools. But after budget cuts this year, there are now only two officers: one full-time at the high school and another who splits time between the elementary and middle schools.

"A dilemma a lot of communities have is money," Superintendent of Schools Nicholas A. Fischer said Thursday. "A lot of communities don't have the ability to fund that position. What the SROs have a done is a great job building relationships with the kids. The primary function of an SRO is to help keep the school safe and to help build relationships with the students."


Special Report: Sandy Hook school shootings


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