The Connecticut Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection has made $5 million available from a bonding bill passed in 2020 to fund communications systems that would connect schools directly to local law enforcement agencies.
The eligible proposals could include a camera, radio, panic button or other device connected to the internet that is able to transmit notifications and messages to police departments or first responders, eliminating the need to call 911.
The goal of the grant, which provides $4.5 million for public schools and $500,000 for private schools, is to enhance communications networks between schools and police departments, which would allow for quick decision-making during a crisis, said Eric Scoville, emergency management program specialist at the department.
A number of towns and school districts have started to implement a system but, the needs and approaches vary.
Ian Neviaser, superintendent of Lyme-Old Lyme Schools, said the district has been working for the past two years to create a radio system that will connect the three elementary schools, middle school and high school to one another with the goal of connecting that system to the local police department and the state police. That the district uses a different radio system than the police and emergency responders has been a challenge.
Neviaser said calls to the police department from the district — including all five schools — total five to 10 per year, generally for medical emergencies.
Mike Finkelstein, chief of police for East Lyme, said that while the police department’s radio system allows the schools to connect with a dispatcher in the case of a significant event, the schools have not needed to use the system yet.
He said the department and the school district are discussing ideas for the grant funding, including integrated cameras — a camera that streams or feeds images and video over the internet — or a system that sends the police department a notification if the schools enter a lockdown.
“I think it’s really just trying to give opportunities to communities to improve upon technologies,” Finkelstein said.
Enhancement not replacement
Lyme-Old Lyme schools do not employ a police officer on school grounds. Neviaser said the district considered employing school resource officers after the school shooting at Sandy Hook in 2013, but parents and board members voiced concern about firearms in the schools, even in the hands of officers. Hiring a police officer also posed a financial challenge.
“We [Lyme-Old Lyme] don’t have the luxury of having our own police force,” said Neviaser. “We would have to hire a state trooper, and the cost for that is pretty steep.”
The district instead has hired four unarmed security guards, all former officers.
In East Lyme, the district employs a school resource officer who responds to situations in the schools as they arise. Finkelstein said that it’s impossible to know how many emergency situations would require calling the police if the resource officer were not there, but he said that the times the resource officer has had to call in back-ups are “few and far between.”
Finkelstein said that an enhanced communications system was not a replacement for a resource officer in East Lyme schools. According to Finkelstein, a school resource officer works in the schools to develop relationships with students and staff, while a communications system is intended to improve response times in emergency situations.
Both Eric Scoville and Peter Yazbak, the director of communications for the Department of Education, agreed that the goal of the communications systems is not to replace resource officers in schools.
“The intent of the grant is to facilitate a stronger network and system within our municipalities between emergency services and the respective school district,” Yazbak wrote in an email to CT Examiner.
Scoville said his department does not know how many schools have already implemented these communication systems, and Yazbak said that the Department of Education hasn’t evaluated the security needs by district.
Grants for school security
On April 6, the Office of the Governor announced a fifth round of the school security grant program, which schools can use to purchase door locks, scan-card access systems, cameras, security film for windows and other building improvements.
The state funded more than $63 million in grants in the first four rounds of the program, which were available between 2013 and 2018.
Scoville said that schools lacking security infrastructure would be considered first for both the school security grant and the communications system grant. Funding would then be directed toward priority districts based on socioeconomics — Ansonia, Bridgeport, Danbury, Derby, East Hartford, Hartford, Manchester, Meriden, New Britain, New Haven, New London, Norwalk, Norwich, Stamford, Waterbury and Windham.
Scoville said grants would also be available to childcare and daycare centers that have experienced verbal and physical threats, or belong to a community that has experienced threats nationwide. Both public and private schools can apply for the grant by filling out a two-part application that includes a “Safe Schools Checklist.”
The first part of the application is due June 15, and the second is due June 30.