The West Hartford Board of Education began Tuesday night's meeting with a period of reflection, during which each board member shared thoughts about the unspeakable tragedy which occurred at Newtown's Sandy Hook Elementary School on Friday, Dec. 14.
Most spoke of giving their own children extra hugs. They said the schools should be a happy place.
Board member Terry Schmitt spoke of the first responders, teachers, and administrators in Newtown. "They all acted with purpose, courage and love for the children … it helps me believe that the people in our town would face anything like this with purpose, courage and love."
Vice Chair Elin Katz said, "I just felt the need to take a minute to feel a little bit sad, and to take some time to grieve, and say goodbye." She read aloud a passage from the beloved children's book Goodnight Moon.
Those reflections were a prelude to a serious discussion of current safety measures in place at the town's public schools, and plans to implement additional measures in the future.
Superintendent of Schools Dr. Karen List said she was grateful for the work the administrators had done over the weekend, planning and being prepared for the return and reactions on Monday in each of the district's schools. She praised the already positive relationship between the schools and the police department.
Assistant Superintendent for Administration Tom Moore admitted that Tuesday night's presentation was a very difficult one to make.
"I talk a lot about keeping schools safe. Every time we do a lock-down drill I get parents saying we shouldn’t do a lock-down drill. We seek to strike a balance. Our schools should be happy places for our kids – this week more than ever," Moore said.
He said the notion that the security of a school was shattered is unimaginable.
"I'm not going to make a lot of promises tonight. The only thing I'll say is that we're doing a lot, and we have been. We're constantly learning going forward, and that's what we'll do."
Nationwide, there has already been extensive discussion of mental health issues in addition to safety as part of the conversation about preventing another incident like Sandy Hook.
According to Moore, the following is already in place in West Hartford Public Schools:
- Mental health professionals, including a school psychologist and social workers are already on staff.
- Every school already has a detailed safety plan for a variety of incidents including passive lock-down, full lock-down, and fire drill. There are two predetermined evacuation sites for every school.
- Each building typically conducts three lock-down drills on an annual basis. "This makes it routine. Practice is important! That is something in Newtown that worked out very well and saved lives," said Moore. Webster Hill achieved full lock-down in just one minute during the school's most recent drill, he said..
- School Resource Officers (SROs) from the police department are on site at both Conard and Hall. There are three other community relations officers who visit the town's other schools on a regular basis.
- Security staff is in place at all secondary schools. They know the kids, and they know the school layouts, Moore said.
- A buzzer system, which replaced the greeter system, is in place at all schools other than the high schools and King Philip. The administration previously felt a buzzer was not needed at King Philip because the office is directly in front of the doors, but following this week's review of safety measures a buzzer system will be installed. The high schools do not have buzzers because security staff is positioned in front of the only doors that remain unlocked throughout the day.
- The administration holds regular meetings with the police, and conducts walk-throughs of the buildings.
- The district conducts seminars on disaster and emergency preparedness, which are attended by principals and assistant principals.
In response to the Newtown shooting, Moore said, safety protocols at all buildings have been strengthened and are being more strictly enforced. Another officer has been hired and security audits are being performed, focusing initially on the elementary schools.
Moore said that a key swipe system had been planned as a component of the district's installation of wireless technology, and that plan will now be accelerated. It will be used to gain entry to the schools at all times, including by groups who use the buildings during non-school hours.
Moore also said he is investigating the cost for placement of a panic button, which would be patched directly to the police department, in each school office.
Police Chief Tracey Gove praised the relationship between the schools and the police department in West Hartford. He said that schools in other districts often won’t do lockdown drills because it's "too scary."
Gove said that conducting "active shooter training" was one of his goals when he became chief earlier this year. He told Moore and the board that rather than waiting for next summer as originally planned, the training would begin in the schools during the upcoming holiday break.
Gove said that West Hartford's police department is well-staffed and well-equipped. Officers have vests that can stop rifle rounds, he said. “I want you to know that we do have great capabilities in West Hartford and I am confident we can keep everyone safe,” said Gove.
Gove said that there are always lessons to be learned from a tragedy. There are 17,000 [police chiefs throughout the country] looking to see what comes out of this," he said.
Moore said he is thankful to West Hartford parents for this week's outpouring of support for teachers and principals.
The district has over 1,000 employees and almost 10,000 students, Moore said. "People will call and ask me how I will guarantee that their students are safe. My wife is one of those employees my kids are two of those kids. It’s not just your kids, it’s my kids," he said.
Jay Sarzen, the newest member of the Board of Education, said he wants to be sure that we don't instill too much fear in our kids.
Moore said that at the beginning of the school year he talked extensively about making every school a welcoming community. It's tough to strike a balance, he said. "How do we maintain that and keep our schools safe?"
"You guys are scaring the hell out of me because you’re forcing me to imagine all of the unimaginable things that I don’t want to think about – but it comforts me to know that you are thinking about all of these things,” said Katz.
She said she appreciates the balancing.
"These are scary things to think about and it’s our job to think about them ... We want people to feel safe in their schools … We strike that balance between serving the community and protecting it as well,” said Gove.