Connecticut schools changed after Sandy Hook
When Jahmarrah Thomas drove back home Wednesday, after dropping her 7-year-old daughter off at the Regional Multicultural Magnet School in New London, she began to cry.
She had thought she was doing somewhat OK after hearing the news of the shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, and was able to sleep the night before. But when she saw the police officers and the little kids walking into her daughter’s school, she broke down because the children in Texas, “they could really be our kids any day.”
She said she is so grateful for the Regional Multicultural Magnet School’s safety protocols and they ease her mind.
“With everything that’s going on, from going grocery shopping to just sending your kid off to school, you have to kind of be a little wary or be vigilant at times,” Thomas said in an interview as she waited to pick up her daughter and her nephew, also 7, from school Thursday afternoon.
She said she appreciated seeing the police officers giving kids high-fives on their way to school on Wednesday, as well as the firefighters that were there.
“That was just reassuring that everybody wants to keep the children safe and we’re all kind of working together to see what we can do,” Thomas said, adding that she hopes that continues.
School officials in Connecticut said in interviews this past week that the 2012 shooting that killed 20 children and six staff members at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown changed school environments in the state and across the nation.
As part of Public Act 13-3 passed shortly after the Sandy Hook shooting, the state put in place an infrastructure grant program, as well as a school emergency plan requirement for schools and school districts, state Department of Education spokesman Eric Scoville said.
“In total, over $70 million has been invested at both public and private schools across the state since 2013 to enhance and harden infrastructure,” Scoville said.
Brian Foley, who was a Hartford police officer when Sandy Hook happened and is now assistant to the commissioner of the Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection, said Sandy Hook opened the eyes of police and school administrators on how to respond to a school incident and codified that multiple entities, including police departments, schools, fire departments and emergency management, all had to work together on school security plans.
In Stonington, each of the schools has installed updated safety equipment and implemented updated safety procedures since the Sandy Hook shooting. Among them are that visitors to schools, other than staff and students, must enter a locked vestibule monitored by cameras. They have to identify themselves and show identification before a locked door is opened to allow them into the main office. Visitors have no direct access into the school building. The police department also can access the school's security cameras if needed. Other improvements have not been publicized.
In addition, police department Youth Officer Kerry Browning spends much of her day at the high school and the other three schools. Patrol officers make checks of the schools throughout the day.
Veteran Officer Ed Cullen, who has done in-depth reviews of all school shootings across the country to see how police and schools responded, has been among those at the department who helped develop an active violence training program and then trained all school staff and students in it. The police departments, the town's six fire departments and emergency medical services also have protocols about how to respond to a school shooting.
As part of their recertification training, police officers also engage in school shooting drills.
"We have an amazing relationship with the schools. We work very closely together and they are open to anything we suggest," Capt. Todd Olson said. "We want to do everything we possibly can to ensure the safety of everyone in the schools."
Olson said it's extremely important to ensure there is a close relationship between the schools and police.
"If there is good communication, it is more likely they will talk to us about something that's going on so we can stop it before it happens," he said.
Superintendent of Schools Van Riley said the school system meets with police periodically to discuss security issues and determine if there are needs to be addressed. “We have completed a number of security upgrades during the past 10 years and we do meet or exceed all federal and state school safety parameters," he said, adding he could not discuss details of those improvements without compromising safety protocols.
Riley also said the school system has increased its mental health staffing and has used federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief and American Rescue Plan funds to do so.
Ledyard Superintendent Jason Hartling, who was a high school principal on the day of the Sandy Hook shooting, said schools across the country changed that day. From that point on, schools went from being open facilities to being locked and secured. He said the Ledyard school district invested a significant amount of resources to maximize safety of its buildings and implemented protocols, such as ALICE — which stands for Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter and Evacuate — active shooter training four years ago.
He said the state did a good job of providing funding and partnering with school districts to make sure best practices are being implemented.
Waterford Superintendent Thomas Giard III said that for security reasons, he could not specify the security enhancements, but through a combination of local funds and utilization of the state's school security grants program, the district is continuing to secure its buildings. “We do regular security assessments of our facilities in collaboration with our police department to stay ahead,” he said.
He added that mental health services “is absolutely a priority” as well. The district added more social workers and psychologists in the last couple of years, launched a therapeutic day program at Waterford High School this year, and in collaboration with United Community Family Services started school-based health clinics at Clark Lane Middle School and Waterford High School.
“Additionally, our district was an early adopter of many of the Sandy Hook Promise mental health programs such as Start with Hello, Say Something, Signs of Suicide training for staff, and the Wingman Program,” he said.
Wingman is a leadership and anti-bullying program for youths, founded by the father of a Sandy Hook victim, while Sandy Hook Promise is a nonprofit whose mission is “to end school shootings and create a culture change that prevents violence and other harmful acts that hurt children.”
In a news release after the Uvalde shooting, Sandy Hook Promise said, "reversing the epidemic of gun violence plaguing our nation requires a holistic approach that combines (1) community awareness of warning signs and how to effectively intervene, (2) research on root causes and effective upstream prevention strategies, and (3) sensible gun safety policy."
Start with Hello
North Stonington Superintendent Peter Nero said the district recently completed two building projects — for the high and elementary schools — that have all the latest safety features, a state requirement for school projects. He said the district also got a state grant to purchase Raptor Security Systems that scan people's drivers licenses.
“We want to make sure that we are doing everything we possibly can to make our students and staff safe,” Nero said.
Wheeler High School Principal Kristen St. Germain said the school has held initiatives, such as the Start with Hello student assemblies with Sandy Hook Promise, and brought in programs through the local addiction awareness organization Community Speaks Out, as well as other social and emotional learning opportunities.
“Before the Sandy Hook Promise, we began a three-year commitment to training our staff in Climate and a Restorative Approach with our students, particularly in dealing with students who have experienced trauma and how we help support them as educators," St. Germain added.
In the wake of the Uvalde shooting, Norwich Superintendent Kristen E. Stringfellow sent a letter to the school community and wrote that the district had overhauled its district crisis plans and procedures last year. She said all staff are trained in ALICE crisis response protocols in partnership with the police department.
She also detailed safety protocols, such as a requirement for visitors to go through the Raptor system, “school safety software that enables us to screen visitors, track volunteers, report on drills and respond to emergencies.” Volunteers also must pass a background check. She also said the district added three school resource officers this year.
East Lyme Superintendent Jeffrey Newton said the school district works hard "to ensure robust counseling supports are present and implemented as necessary." He also noted, "We work collaboratively with our school security staff and the East Lyme Police Department to ensure a safe school environment is in place during each school day."
Ellen Solek, interim superintendent of the Connecticut Technical Education and Career System, said the state’s technical schools, which include Ella T. Grasso Technical High School in Groton and Norwich Technical High School, are taking a two-pronged approach to student and staff safety.
“The environment in schools and outside of schools has changed dramatically since the events of Newtown, and they will continue to change and grow,” Solek said.
She said the district has implemented this year a new C.A.R.E.S. — which stands for Creating Attitudes and Relationships to Empower Staff and Students — program to address social and emotional needs. Maria Ragali and Tim Viens, who helped spearhead the program at the technical high schools, said they are trying to build and support positive relationships through the program.
Solek said the Connecticut Technical Education and Career System, or CTECS, also has a myriad of measures in place, from camera surveillance to school resource officers and security personnel, and also looks at how to expand safety and security measures. Norwich Tech and Grasso Tech currently share a school resource officer and CTECS will be adding an additional officer in the coming year.
Students must feel safe to learn
Groton Superintendent Susan Austin said she was a principal at an elementary school in Monroe, just miles away from Newtown, on the day of the Sandy Hook shooting. She remembers working to make sure her teachers were OK, especially those who had close attachments at Sandy Hook, and making sure kids were safe. She then reassured parents that their children were safe and helped prepare them on how to talk to their children.
She said her biggest job as a teacher, principal and now superintendent is to keep children, staff and everyone in the community safe.
“Teaching and learning doesn’t happen if people aren’t feeling safe,” she said.
She said the school district has a safety plan, good relationships with the police departments, and also has put in place more mental health resources using coronavirus relief funds. She said every school has at least one social worker. She also started mental health summits in collaboration with other groups when she joined the school district.
She said the school district is a community hub and knows resources if families are struggling.
Austin said she thinks school shootings are a multifaceted issue. She thinks it’s a problem with mental health and with having access to weapons and being able to learn about anything on the internet, and some of the games children play that numb them.
She said when shootings such as the one in Uvalde take place, “it stuns us” but she hopes “it never numbs us.” She said it’s a call to action for people, from religious leaders to health providers to emergency responders, to come together to analyze problems and listen to people.
Carrie Czerwinski, Armi Sevilla Rowe and Day Staff Writer Joe Wojtas contributed to this report.
What: New London leaders, school officials and clergy will hold a mental health forum called "A Community Conversation to Learn About the Various Mental Health Supports Available." They will discuss resources and information will be available for attendees. "Blank index cards will be provided for attendees to submit questions regarding mental health supports, how they can help someone in crisis, and other topics they wish to discuss with leaders in future forums," according to a news release.
When: 6:30 p.m.-7:30 p.m. Tuesday
Where: Jennings School library, 50 Mercer St., New London
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