State Scrapped School Safety Funding Program

A police officer keeps vigil as students were dropped off at the Newtown Middle School as classes resumed in Newtown on December 18, 2012. (MCT)

As the legislature convenes just weeks after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, its focus is sure to include the issue of school security and questions over how to pay for needed upgrades.

But fewer than three years ago the state pulled the plug on a program that helped fund safety improvements at local schools because of a growing budget deficit, a Courant review of state records reveals.

The S.A.F.E. schools grant program was approved as a two-year, $10 million response to the 2007 shootings at Virginia Tech, where 33 students were killed.

The program, administered by the state's Homeland Security department, required local school districts to provide some funding while applying for matching funds from the state. The percentage of money the state paid was based on the wealth of the community.

In 2008, nearly all of the $5 million was doled out to 61 school districts, records show. Many installed safety items such as surveillance cameras and panic buttons.

But in 2009, as a budget crisis loomed, then-Gov. M. Jodi Rell wanted to eliminate the program and use the entire $5 million to close a growing state deficit. Powerful state lawmaker and Senator Pro Tempore Donald Williams, who proposed the grant originally, fought to keep $1.7 million in place. The move ensured that three school systems in his legislative district - Killingly, Mansfield and Putnam – received grant money.

"Last time we didn't have towns beating down our doors. We went around the state letting school districts know about the program,'' Williams said Friday. "I don't think that will be a problem this time. People are absolutely talking about security for our schools and I am sure there will be a demand to take action."

Williams said he had some bonding money made available for school security in 2010. None of that money was used and could still available, he said.

Newtown, home to Sandy Hook Elementary School, was one of the last school districts to receive money before the program was shuttered in 2009. The town had studied security issues at its schools, deciding that the high school needed to be upgraded, records show.

School districts had to conduct security assessments and explain why they needed the money and what they would do with it.

On its grant application, Newtown officials said the high school was "significantly vulnerable to facility breaches by automobile and individuals accessing the facility's main entrance and peripheral through heavily wooded areas."

The assessment concluded "with consistent evidence of automobile break-ins, non-school/non-community individuals in possession of illegal substances; visitors entering the school with 'no contact' restrictions; two lockdown responses to handgun and prison incidents; the robbery of a credit union across from the school and armed gunmen using the school facility as an observation point and vehicle turnaround, we feel it is necessary to respond with appropriate measures, safeguarding the well-being of our students and staff."

The team recommended installing a security kiosk in the driveway to develop a formalized stop zone for visitors and students to check in, an access card-key control system for external doors and two-way communications equipment between security at kiosk and school administrators.

The state gave Newtown $16,445 for the project. The town spent an additional $31,030.

State records show that most of the school districts made standard improvements such as installing buzzer systems with intercoms, panic alarms and surveillance cameras. Some towns upgraded security at elementary schools, records show.

Ledyard Superintendent Michael Graner said his district used the grant to install a buzzer and intercom system at several schools, including two elementary schools.

"It's not a perfect system but it does help to identify people who may be a problem,'' Graner said. "If you have a person that you are concerned about you can give their photo to the office staff and tell them if that person shows up trying to get in to call the police."

Sandy Hook Elementary School had a buzzer system and the front entrance was locked when Adam Lanza approached on the morning of Dec. 14. Lanza, authorities have said, shot his way through the building's glass.

Lanza gunned down 26 people, including 20 first-graders in their classrooms, with a semiautomatic rifle before killing himself with a pistol as police closed in.

Guilford Board of Education Chairman William Bloss, who is also a long-time criminal attorney, said with the possible exception of the state's prisons, Lanza could have shot his way into almost any school or state building.