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Officials assure parents Fairfield schools are secure, but shield details

Updated 5:05 pm, Friday, January 10, 2014

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  • Answering questions at a forum on school safety Thursday are, from left, First Selectman Michael Tetreau, Superintendent of Schools David Title, Police Chief Gary MacNamara, Fire Marshal Bill Kessler and Board of Education Chairman Philip Dwyer. Photo: Genevieve Reilly / Fairfield Citizen
    Answering questions at a forum on school safety Thursday are, from left, First Selectman Michael Tetreau, Superintendent of Schools David Title, Police Chief Gary MacNamara, Fire Marshal Bill Kessler and Board of Education Chairman Philip Dwyer. Photo: Genevieve Reilly

 

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Town and school officials answered general questions on school security for about two hours Thursday, but as a safeguard against potential threats, parents were told that many details about the procedures and programs will not be disclosed.

The public forum was held after concerns were raised by two local incidents at the end of last year -- a man who confessed to having urges about harming Sherman School students, and another charged with bringing loaded weapons to the University of New Haven campus, and a few weeks before, had visited Fairfield Woods Middle School. Both incidents came in the weeks preceding the one-year anniversary of the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown.

The event was sponsored by the PTA Council, and questions were submitted on index cards to a panel that included Superintendent of Schools David Title, Police Chief Gary MacNamara, First Selectman Michael Tetreau and Fire Marshal William Kessler.

Many questions centered on what funding is needed to improve school security.

North Stratfield School parent Kristin DeWitt, whose husband, Chris, is a member of the Board of Finance, has started an online petition asking Tetreau to add $230,000 to the 2014-15 budget for school security measures. As of last night, it had 130 signatures.

"This is a priority for parents," Kristin DeWitt said. "We love living in Fairfield, we love North Stratfield and we're looking forward to Fairfield Woods. I don't want to have to worry every morning when I drop them off at school, and every parent I've talked to feels the same way."

The $230,000 was cut during the last year's budget process from a $400,000 request. The remaining funds were used to pay for enhanced security measures at individual schools, and the time of one officer -- Sgt. Ed Weihe -- was dedicated to the school district. Weihe works out of an office at the Board of Education administrative center.

MacNamara said while a police unit dedicated to school security and related issues is a good idea, he is unsure that an officer at every school would be the right answer.

The department's two DARE officers, when not teaching at the elementary schools, also spend time at Fairfield Woods and Tomlinson middle schools. There are student resource officers permanently assigned to the two high schools, and the SRO at Fairfield Ludlowe High also is responsible for Roger Ludlowe Middle School, which is on the same campus.

Title said cameras and door buzzers were installed at all of the elementary and middle schools. "Our first priority is to secure the buildings during the school day, while staff and students are there," he said. A card-swipe system has been installed at all schools, so staff members don't need to prop a door open if they leave and need to get back in. At the high schools, the front door is constantly monitored to make sure all visitors head to the office first, and at the elementary schools, there is a new cart system for parents delivering items forgotten by their children. They can leave those items outside on the cart, which is then brought inside by a staffer.

Staff and teachers continue to undergo training by the Police Department on ways to recognize threats and learning what to do during a building lockdown. "We are asking them to become crisis leaders," MacNamara said, because in the initial moments of an emergency, they will be the first "first responders." Asked about whether there are panic buttons in the schools, Title said all teachers have the ability to call 911 from every classroom, and MacNamara said that is in many ways better than a panic button. "We need information," the police chief said.

Tetreau said a comprehensive security plan is being drawn up, with recommendations for any additional changes that need to be made, but it will come with a price tag.

All the officials stressed that safety of students remains a priority and security plans are already in place, but with each threat or incident, the plans have been tweaked and improved.