DARIEN – The town’s representatives debated the Board of Education approval of armed security officers at six elementary schools, questioning risks to students, costs to taxpayers and a lack of discussion and involvement of residents in the decision.
On the advice of the Board of Finance and in collaboration with the police department, the Board of Education appropriated funds from its budget surplus to hire six retired police officers, a director of security and a director of mental health. In October, the board unanimously approved $296,000 to support the hiring process.
But at the Representative Town Meeting on Monday, committee chairs questioned the integrity of the board’s decision.
Jack Davis, chair of the RTM Finance and Budget Committee, said this was the first time that seven permanent full-time employees had been hired off-cycle. He said that at a recent meeting, committee members called the board’s failure to discuss new hires with the RTM contrary to the town’s democratic process.
“This is a substantial change to policy and deserved more,” Davis said.
Davis said members supported security officers, but that it was a significant amount of money to spend without empirical evidence suggesting it would achieve the goals of the Board of Education.
Some members also felt that the change should’ve been better communicated with the entire community, Davis added.
“This is an expense that’s going to be large, and our taxpayers are going to be paying for it,” Davis said. “And not all taxpayers have children in the school.”
But Ed Washecka, chair of the RTM Education Committee, said that in addition to numerous discussions at Board of Education, Board of Finance and RTM committee meetings, Darien Public School administration sent multiple emails to parents and posted extensive information online.
“I’m not sure what else [Superintendent] Dr. Addley could have done in this regard to educate residents,” Washecka said. “Some people suggested a public hearing, although to me, it seems unlikely such an event would reach residents not already aware of the program.”
Still, Washecka said, many members of the Education Committee were unhappy that the introduction of school security officers was not up for committee vote.
James Patrick, chair of the RTM Public Health and Safety Committee, said that while some members trusted the judgment of Police Chief Donald Anderson on the matter, others harbored doubts.
“Concerns were expressed about the potential for using a firearm in the heated moment of an explosive behavior incident,” Patrick reported. “Concerns were expressed that there are no assurances of an officer running to or running away from an incident.”
Upon opening the floor for discussion, numerous representatives on the 100-member body stepped to the microphone to challenge the need for armed security in elementary schools.
Katie Vanovitch, a mother of four students in the Darien Public School system, said she could empathize with a parental instinct to protect students, but said there was no data to support the board’s decision.
“There’s nothing that shows that having an armed guard will protect our kids. We have seen the times where armed guards did nothing in these situations,” Vanovitch said. “We are essentially telling our kids that they are not safe in school… We are telling them that guns are the solution.”
Vanovitch said the “massive gun problem” across the country was not for the board to solve, but said more guns were never the solution.
But Rachel Taylor, a mother of two Darien students, said she supported the program as it promoted community safety. She also questioned the need for RTM discussion on the topic.
“I am confused why we’re talking about this tonight as an agenda item. My understanding is that the Board of Ed decided to implement and fund the program within its own approved budget,” Taylor said. “The issue is not underneath the jurisdiction of the RTM.”
Member Dan Guller argued that the topic merited discussion from the representatives and cited lengthy, light-hearted RTM debates.
“I feel like one of the reasons we’re discussing this tonight is that I feel like putting guns in our grade schools deserves at least as much consideration as remodeling a playground,” Guller said.
Guller spoke in opposition to the addition of armed school security officers and to his own worries as a father.
“I have a son that’s starting Hindley next year, and he’s about waist high. And next year, he’s going to be about gun high,” Guller said. “And I’m not thrilled with that.”
Guller also questioned the approval process, hypothesizing that the Board of Finance suggested the use of the budget surplus to circumvent the RTM.
“I think we’re being sold something, and I don’t care to buy it,” Guller said.
Jan Raymond, a former Board of Education member, said she agreed with concerns about the process.
“This is not the way I’ve seen boards – present and past – process something that is not just a school change, but a cultural change for our entire town,” Raymond said.
Later in the meeting, Board of Education Chair David Dineen told representatives that the decision to hire school security officers followed robust board discussions, reviews of current school security practices and work with the police department and Board of Finance.
“To be clear, nothing has been circumvented in the process,” Dineen said. “I repeat, nothing has been circumvented in the process. To say otherwise is a falsehood.”
Dineen said that while security and protocols could be debated endlessly, the board was the entity charged with the safety and security of the town’s most precious asset.
“The world has changed and waiting, following, or continue to debate and play politics around process is not leadership,” Dineen said. “When it comes to security, we act on the behalf of our students.”
Dineen thanked the school community for their support through the unprecedented period of education, mental health and school security, and said the board was in the final stages of security staff.