By KATHLEEN MEGAN, firstname.lastname@example.org
8:45 PM EST, December 15, 2012
School administrators in districts throughout Connecticut are reviewing their security systems and fielding calls from parents worried about their children's safety.
Friday's killing of 20 young children and six adults by a gunman at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown "has changed public education and security for kids dramatically," said New Hartford Superintendent Philip B. O'Reilly. "We always say and we believe in our hearts that that our greatest concern is kids' safety, and now we are at a new definition of kids' safety in this incident."
The shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado in 1999 began an era of heightened security in many public schools, making locked doors, buzzer systems and video cameras commonplace. Will the deaths in Newtown result in even tighter security measures?
"I do think it will lead to some wide-scale changes," O'Reilly said.
Frank H. Sippy, superintendent of schools for Regional School District 15, said he thinks the attack in Newtown is "a game-changer."
But Sippy cautioned that change must be made thoughtfully. "What's dangerous," Sippy said, "is to make wholesale changes without clearly letting the event unfold. ... Then we need to carefully think about what additional precautions we can take and what's the price we pay."
Although it's too soon to say exactly what increased security measures might look like, Sippy said he expects that there will be changes in policy and protocol.
"There probably isn't a school in the country that won't review their security arrangements," said Joseph Cirasuolo, executive director of the Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents.
Ken Trump, president of National School Safety and Security Services, a Cleveland-based firm that consults with districts on safety, said that parents should send their kids to school on Monday and not keep them home, as some did after Columbine. "It will be the safest day in school, with heightened awareness of security," he said.
He said he expects that in the short term, the killings in Newtown will "change the conversations" about safety. "The challenge will be six months and six years down the road when there is not a tragedy in the forefront of our minds," he said.
O'Reilly said that parents and children in New Hartford will notice some changes right away. As of Monday, he said, all doors will be locked and a monitor will be stationed at the front door to admit people until a buzzer system and video cameras can be installed.
"I want my parents to know that I will do everything in my power to keep their kids safe," said O'Reilly. "And when they send their children to school on Monday morning — and many of us who are parents will be angsting over that — I want them to know that I am watching over and very, very sincere about my efforts to keep their kids safe and secure."
Naugatuck Superintendent John Tindall-Gibson said that schools there have a security system that he thinks is somewhat similar to the system in Newtown, where access is allowed through the front door by a buzzer system. He said that the schools in Naugatuck are very secure, but that he will be reviewing the security system nonetheless. "We plan to take additional measures," Tindall-Gibson said, "but we aren't sure what they are at this time."
One issue, he said, is that schools "weren't built like banks, if you know what I mean."
He said that possibilities for increasing security could include installing a system that makes it quicker and easier to alert police in an emergency, perhaps the type of system now in place in banks. He said it might also be possible to further limit access to classrooms.
Windsor Superintendent Jeffrey A. Villar said he called each of his principals on Friday to review safety protocols, and he has asked the Windsor police to include the schools in their patrols next week.
Villar also sent a message to parents telling them that if they see police cars at the school not to become alarmed.
"We are pretty confident we have good plans in place," Villar said, but he will be reviewing those plans and possibly making changes.
He said it's important to review the security system not only to make any needed changes but also to assure parents and students. "You need to show people we are in control," Villar said. "This is a safe place. You can trust to bring your children here."
The superintendents also said they will have counselors in place for students, teachers and administrators who feel they would like to talk to someone about the Newtown shootings.
Villar said teachers will follow the lead of the children. If students want to discuss it, they will. "There's a balance," Villar said. "We don't want to create more concern than exists."
He said teachers and administrators will have to handle the situation child by child. Sometimes, he said, a child might not ask for help, but might really need it. "That's why we lean on the assistance of mental health professionals," Villar said.
Sippy, whose Southbury school district neighbors Newtown, said, "We all have to tread lightly."
He said he doesn't expect that teachers will bring up the topic for the sake of discussion, but: "We have an obligation to try to answer the youngsters' questions as reasonably as we can."
O'Reilly said that next week's schedule in New Hartford will allow for flexibility, so that if children want to talk about what happened in Newtown, they will have a chance. "This needs to be handled delicately," he said.
He also emphasized that counseling services will be available for staff: "This is a tragedy for teachers, this is a tragedy for principals, as well as for kids."
FOX CT will have a one-hour special examining what can be done to keep our families safe at school at 10 a.m. Sunday.
Copyright © 2014, The Hartford Courant