Police take lead role in planning school security upgrades
On Tuesday morning, police received a call from the principal of Holland Hill School. She wanted authorities to document some "threatening" comments made by a parent to a school paraprofessional.
And that, said police Sgt. Suzanne Lussier, is just what law-enforcement officials want to happen. "We're trying to really build the communication network," she said. "We would encourage schools to call and report incidents like this."
It is all part of a new push for school safety protocols and procedures in the wake of December's tragic shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Since January, Lussier and Lt. James Perez have begun visiting all of the public and private schools in town, including nursery schools, to conduct physical assessments of security issues and then devising a customized plan for each building.
"We have a very skilled Police Department," Superintendent of Schools David Title said during a recent hearing on the 2013-14 budget. He said Fairfield is fortunate in that respect, noting that some of colleagues in other school districts are hiring outside firms to do what this town's police department is providing as an in-kind service. Title met with Perez and Lussier just after the first of the year to plan the security survey.
In Westport, school officials had asked for $100,000 to pay for a security audit from a Manhattan-based security consulting firm. But facing mounting criticism over how the request was handled, they withdrew the funding request from Representative Town Meeting consideration this week in order to solicit multiple bids for the study.
Lussier said so far, she and Perez have completed physical assessments on about 10 out of 30 local school buildings.
"We do the physical site assessment of every school to determine what we might recommend or areas we feel are vulnerable and require changes," she said. "It may be video, it may be buzzer access."
Depending on the size of the school building, a security assessment may require several visits to complete. Such is the case with Fairfield Ludlowe High School. Lussier and Perez have already spent three hours at the Unquowa Road school and Lussier estimates they will need to make at least two more visits.
"We're taking photos, writing reports and putting together a power-point presentation" that will be used to train faculty and staff, Lussier said. In addition to protocol and recommendations specific to individual schools, there will also be generic townwide security procedures.
An integral part of the process, Lussier said, is creating a communications network between the schools and the police.
"What I would like to see is the creation of a multi-disciplinary team," she said. For example, if there is an expulsion hearing for a student, a police officer should be present. Officers should be kept informed of students who have been expelled or suspended, Lussier said, and the schools should be kept informed if a student is arrested, or perhaps if one of their parents is. "If we make an arrest over the weekend, it's going to help staff at the schools to help that student," she said. "Maybe they're a victim or a witness to domestic violence."
In the recent Holland Hill incident, there was no arrest but Lussier said the parent had been at the school a few days prior, pacing the school grounds, upset that the state Department of Children and Families had been notified about her.
"That timely reporting of the incident can make the difference in a situation that might otherwise have become violent or concerning," Lussier said. "If we can identify and diffuse situations, we're all going to be better."
Since December, there have been some immediate security changes at town schools, Title said, but school officials are waiting for the final recommendations from the audit before investing more money. "We thought it prudent to hold off on any further expenditures," he said.
Some school projects were put on hold, Title said, in order to immediately beef up school security. At the middle and elementary schools, door buzzers were installed and doors are now locked after the class day starts "as an interim measure.
Lussier and Perez said parents should know that security procedures at locals schools are going to change and they likely will not have the access to come and go that they once did.
"This needs to be a safe environment for the children to learn in." Lussier said.
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