Experts Debate State Approach to School Safety

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“Initiating emergency lockdown,” an electronic voice announced from a speaker on the desk phone.

A small red button on any phone in all four of the Lyme-Old Lyme school buildings can activate a “critical incident response,” a school safety procedure drilled twice each month. 

“The state requires you to do at least one drill each month, at least eight fire drills and two lockdown drills,” explained School Superintendent Ian Neviaser. “We do two per month — sometimes lockdowns, fire drills, critical incident drills.”  

That’s 20 drills each school year, in addition to class time devoted to safety training. As of 2014, after the December 12 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, the state requires all school districts to submit a School Safety and Security plan and log of drills annually. Without a plan, schools are not eligible to receive any funding to help with school security building projects.

“We talk about critical incidents a lot. There is one day every month where the teacher in every class talks about what they would do if there was a critical incident. It was kind of surreal the first time. It felt ridiculous that we had to do this, but now I appreciate it,” said senior Sarah Conley. “For a minute all of this was scary, but it’s more about safety and we all understand it.” 

Students and staff also receive training in the use of tourniquets, CPR and first aid, Neviaser said. And a significant amount of out-of-class time for teachers is spent on learning safety procedures.

“We spend a lot more than we used to and it definitely does impact the day,” Neviaser said. “But, we see it as we are teaching the kids a life skill, this doesn’t just happen in schools. We live in a whole new world. We are trying to train our kids that this could happen anywhere at any time.”

According to National School Safety and Security Services such drills and training — despite the impact to instructional time — are a far better use of school resources than added metal detectors, redesigned vestibules and armed resource officers. 

“While the facts and merits of every case vary, they all involve allegations of failure of people, policy or procedure, not infrastructure,” said Ken Trump, the president of National School Safety and Security Services. “There is a skewed focus on hardware and the security industry has taken off with it. They actively lobby legislators for changes in regulations and funding for renovations.”

According to Trump, the primary appeal of infrastructure solutions is the ease.

“It’s a lot easier for a superintendent to point toward more cameras and security vestibules to say that they made the school safer,” Trump said.

In recent years Lyme-Old Lyme schools have spent $80,000 on a new inter-school radio system, $60,000 on bullet-proof film for building windows and $3,000 on window labels to help identify classrooms to emergency responders.

On the state level, the Department of Administrative Services spends between $16 million and $23 million on school security infrastructure each year, according to Konstantinos Diamantis, the director of the Office of School Construction Grants and Review under the Department of Administrative Services for the State of Connecticut.

More than drills and buildings

“If you look at the incidents that have happened, they tend to be students from the school,” said Neviaser, who gave a tour of the safety and security measures adopted by the school district. “None of this is going to help if it is a student.” 

In fact, more than 75 percent of school shooters across the United States since 2010 have been part of the school community and more than 44 percent have been students, according to the School Shooting Database Project, sponsored by the Naval Postgraduate School’s Center for Homeland Defense and Security.

No amount of drills or building improvements will protect against such incidents, said Trump. 

“What’s harder is the intangible and invisible. That all students and faculty have a good relationship and feel welcome. That all students would come forward when they know about a weapon, a plot, a person who talks about self-harm,” Trump said. 

According to Trump, school safety is less about how safe a school is from the outside, than the culture of the school on the inside. In 2013, in an effort to address the environment within schools, the legislature passed a law requiring all districts to establish a school climate committee.

The bill requires the committee to “collect and evaluate information relating to instances of disturbing or threatening behavior that may not meet the definition of bullying, as defined in section 10-222d of the general statutes, and report such information, as necessary, to the district safe school climate coordinator.”

“Kids need to feel like they belong at school and the people that they are with and around respect them and include them and that they can get help if they need it,” says Katherine Cowan, director of communications for the National Association of School Psychologists. “It has to be a whole school effort.”

All students need to have a positive relationship with at least one adult, said Cowan.

“There needs to be an active intervention with kids that may be at risk for a mental health or behavioral health episode, often these are the kids who are bullied, isolated or the victims of trauma,” Cowan said. 

In place of zero-tolerance and more punitive approaches to school discipline, Cowan believes that restorative justice can teach students to cope with their emotions, and can address the root causes of problem behavior that may lead to a school incident.

“It’s hard to prove that something didn’t happen in these instances,” Cowan said. “It’s easy to understand why people are looking for tangible, simple solutions to the school safety problem. But, there isn’t any evidence from the data that putting a lot of money into hardening schools works. In fact, there is evidence that over-hardening schools raises kids anxiety and makes them more at risk for causing an incident. Everyone is focused on armed intruders, but we need to focus on the smaller behaviors that could one day escalate.”

At a school of just 400 students, Neviaser said, it’s possible to take that approach, and focus on building positive connections for students.

“They talked to us about reporting concerning behaviors and reaching out to people who might be isolated,” Conley said. “They stress the social media thing and reporting anything we see that might indicate someone is planning something.”

At the same time, the state and school districts continue to spend millions on structural changes to make schools safer.

“We help pay for vestibules, bullet proof glass, darkening of windows and even metal detectors,” said Diamantis. “Regardless of what changes cost, the state of Connecticut has been supportive of making sure these safety changes occur.” 

A security vestibule, also known as a “man trap,” was required by the state in 2013, and is intended to keep visitors to a school in a sealed area with a direct line of sight to the office before they are able to enter a school, 

“There are districts that don’t have these yet, they are the remote schools that don’t have building projects that often. We want to assist these schools in any way we can,” Diamantis said.

Region 4’s middle school is one of the schools still without a compliant entrance. The two entrances used by the school when students are picked up and dropped off still lack a direct line of sight to the main office.

After an internal audit last year, the Board of Education approved $50,000 to improve security, including the entrance, at John Winthrop Middle School in Deep River. 

That amount, however, wouldn’t come close to covering the cost of a project that Diamantis said would normally cost between $500,000 and $1 million.

“The scope of work is larger than anticipated, so we have to pause and reassess, what’s the best option for the school,” said Brian White, superintendent of Region 4 Schools. “From a financial standpoint, how do we plan to do this the right way?”

With all these investments, Diamantis said, there is never a guarantee that your school will be safe.

“No matter how much we do, no matter how much we spend, basic human error prevails. We build a man trap, but you don’t secure the door, we give you bullet proof windows, but you leave them open, we give you security cameras, but you don’t turn them on,” Diamantis said. “The infrastructure is helpful, but the systems are only as good as the people who operate them.”

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