Few schools hire armed guards after Newtown

Hartford - As the nation reeled from the Newtown massacre, proposals to place armed guards in schools quickly gained steam and, initially, public support. But more than four months after the shooting, just two Connecticut school districts are pushing forward with the idea while others are calling it unaffordable or imprudent.

Scott Schoonmaker, superintendent of North Branford schools, hired private guards less than three weeks after the December rampage, which killed 20 first-graders and six educators at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

"I felt, and others felt, that the ability to have a person there specifically to monitor buildings and grounds and be a point person in charge of school safety was the avenue to pursue," he said.

Enfield's town council followed suit in March when it voted to place armed guards in its schools.

But the proposals elsewhere in Connecticut and in many other states have succumbed to political opposition or economic reality. Only Arizona and South Dakota have adopted legislation to ease restrictions on guards carrying guns in schools, while Michigan, Missouri, Oklahoma, North Dakota and New Hampshire have rejected such bills.

And in Newtown, residents last week rejected town and school budgets that would have funded additional school security personnel. The district had a "very good" school security plan when the shooting occurred, according to Patrice McCarthy, deputy director of the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education.

Police officers were assigned to the upper schools in Newtown but not the elementary schools.

The guards in North Branford are private citizens without arrest powers but are in contact with town police and train with them. Schoonmaker expects them to receive permission to carry firearms soon.

Schoonmaker allocated $140,000 in the budget to pay the guards $20 an hour, which he calls "cost efficient."

Placing armed guards in schools is hardly a new idea. School resource officers - sworn police officers with full arrest powers who wear a uniform and carry a gun - have existed in Connecticut for more than a decade. They are charged with counseling and teaching as well as law enforcement.

About 100 SROs work in the state, says Caleb Lopez, president of the Connecticut SRO Association. Lopez worries that private guards will lack training and disregard the responsibility to bond with students.

Enfield has three SROs, but Superintendent Jeffrey Schumann said expanding that program would cost too much time and money. He plans to reduce costs and speed implementation by hiring retiring police officers who are already trained and can accept part-time wages. They would operate under the public safety department but lack policing authority.

The initiative is expected to cost $630,000 next year and $500,000 each subsequent year and is in the budget proposal before the Enfield town council.

"I think the town council has a real challenge," said Schumann, "because we're in tough economic times, and this is a relatively expensive program. It's an impossible argument to have about how valuable the lives of children are and putting a price on that."

Other Connecticut municipalities are making expenditures on physical infrastructure improvements that balance safety and cost.

The Glastonbury town council contracted a school security audit and allocated $485,000 for building hardening initiatives including reinforced doors, locks and buzzer systems.

Danbury has taken similar steps and included unarmed school safety advocates in its proposed budget. Mayor Mark Boughton said adding SROs to elementary schools and other educational buildings is financially unfeasible.

"It would be incredibly difficult to pull off," he said, "and some people have policy concerns about having police officers in the building."

While municipalities consider how to finance and implement long-term initiatives, a council for school safety infrastructure that was created by the new state gun control law is expected to meet next week.

The council will set school safety standards by Jan. 1. Every school must submit a security plan that meets those standards by July 1, 2014.

The council will also administer a $15 million grant program for school safety infrastructure. But as districts move ahead with security assessments, personnel hires, building hardening and capital improvements, many are not relying on Hartford for financial support.

"It's disappointing and incredibly misguided to only appropriate $15 million for the entire state," Boughton said. "That is not nearly enough money and won't even remotely help the hundreds of schools in the state harden themselves and become safer and protect themselves from a potential attack like what happened in Newtown."


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