What went right — and wrong — in the Southport School armed robbery response?

Photo of Katrina Koerting

SOUTHPORT — Earlier this month, two teachers were robbed at gunpoint as they were walking into Southport School.

Police apprehended the two juvenile suspects in a reported stolen car later that day as part of a larger shoreline crime spree that included multiple juveniles and five armed robberies from Clinton to Norwalk, authorities have said.

But while Fairfield police said at a recent forum that largely everything was done right at Southport School, they acknowledged some shortcomings where they could improve in the future. Chief among these is ensuring all of the nearby schools are notified of potential threats.

The incident and youth crime in general was brought up at a recent community forum hosted by state Sen. Tony Hwang at Pequot Library.

While officials addressed what appears to be a larger rise in crime, they said this armed robbery was an isolated incident and did not indicate Southport was necessarily at risk.

“In this particular case, it was just a crime of opportunity,” Police Chief Robert Kalamaras said. “It was just two kids in a stolen car. They didn’t even know where they were.”

The incident

Two teachers were walking into the school around 7:30 a.m. on Nov. 3 when a 15-year-old boy robbed them at gunpoint before getting into a stolen vehicle driven by another juvenile, police said.

“Later we found out it was a facsimile weapon, but just as terrifying in that moment for them,” Lt. Edward Weihe said at the forum. “They did everything that someone in that situation should do.”

He said the teachers maintained their composure, and turned the items over to the suspect without being confrontational or trying to fight him. They then went inside, put the school on a “secure school” condition and called police.

“God forbid there were children in the school,” Weihe said. “God forbid there were children on their way to school. These teachers did what they were trained to do. They wanted to make sure that they took those next steps to minimize any potential casualties if a fugitive was still at large in the area.”

He said the suspects were identified as part of a multi-department investigation and apprehended around 2 p.m. and 4 p.m. that day.

“We’re thankful that in the long run everyone was safe and that the teachers did a commendable job at managing the situation,” Weihe said.

He added that while 99 percent of things went right that day, one fault was other area organizations weren’t notified of what was happening at Southport School, especially the pre-schools at the nearby Trinity Episcopal and Southport Congregational churches.

The Rev. Peggy Hodgkins, rector at Trinity, said the church has 120 pre-schoolers in the program. Yet they learned about the incident from Rev. Paul Whitmore at Southport Congregational, who had also heard it second-hand. She said they had families with cars of children coming and they had to act fast, ultimately deciding to lock down the school.

“We have to make decisions for their safety,” Whitmore said, adding Southport also locked down its pre-school.

Improving communication

Fairfield police said they’re already looking at how they can improve communication with the schools and community at large.

Weihe said they established an email list several years ago of all of the private schools, including nursery schools and pre-schools, that includes the contact info for those directors and allows the department to share information with them in incidents like this. The public schools also have the ability to send information to the list with its alert system. The universities also have alert systems.

“Those mechanisms are in place,” he said. “We just have to take a look at why that didn’t work last time and make sure that doesn’t happen again.”

Kalamaras said the priority in these incidents is to to investigate and then send information out on the communication system.

“Maybe that’s something we need to change because you all are our eyes and ears in the community and if there’s something we don’t see, it’s something that you may be seeing,” he said.

Weihe said police usually send out the communication within five minutes, even if it’s just saying something is happening in the area and more updates will follow.

The department also already uses social media to help spread the word. But several residents asked for the department to send text alerts, much like power companies do when there are outages and colleges use.

Kalamaras said the police use the Fairfield alert system, which people can sign up for on the department’s website, but it’s used more for road closures and storms. He said they could look at expanding the use.

Addressing the cause

Several audience members, as well as Fairfield’s state representatives, who spoke at the forum said more needed to be done to address the underlying causes to prevent these crimes from happening in the first place.

A social worker said this includes more investment in early childhood programs, especially since birth to three years is such a crucial development time. She said she also used to run a diversion program for juvenile first time offenders that put them into positive community programs that prevented repeat offenses.

“These are the kinds of things we need to invest in if we’re going to prevent these things from happening,” she said.

State Rep. Jonathan Steinberg, who represents Westport, said a number of programs have suffered from budget cuts, but the American Rescue Plan money could help restore or add some.

“We’re at a crossroads now,” he said. “The ARPA funds, both at the municipal and state level, is an opportunity to expand or experiment with these programs and show that they really make a difference so that when the ARPA funds expire in 2024, we have the justification and evidence to sustain these programs in the long term.”

Another Fairfield resident who spoke said she’s also an attorney in New Haven and works on special education and expulsion cases. She said officials were seeing a high number of defendants in the juvenile courts who had undiagnosed or untreated mental health problems or learning disabilities and so a program was established to better connect them with those services. She said she saw the education inequities firsthand with some of her clients only getting one hour of speech help a week, while her own children were getting 10 hours in Fairfield.

State Rep. Laura Devlin, who represents Fairfield and hosted her own forum on youth crime this fall, said Connecticut already offers the most recidivism programs in the country and said they needed to look at how many youths these programs served, the costs and what they offered. She said this, as well as consequences needed to be done as a two-prong approach.

Stolen cars and thefts from motor vehicles

Car thefts and thefts from motor vehicles was also a hot topic at the recent forum. Kalamaras said many gathered had probably been a victim of one of these crimes — a point that was later confirmed by a number of residents who spoke.

“That seems to be the trend, not only in Southport, not only in Fairfield, but across the State of Connecticut in addition to the entire nation,” he said.

Kalamaras said there were 248 thefts from motor vehicles and 54 stolen vehicles reported in Fairfield in 2019. Those figures grew to 414 and 99 respectively in 2020 and 336 and 87 as of early November for 2021.

“We’re probably on track to match or increase,” he said.

Of those incidents reported for 2021, Kalamaras said 18 stolen vehicles and 72 thefts from motor vehicles were reported in Southport.

Police have encouraged people to lock their cars and take a number of other measures, such as parking in well lit areas. There is also a patrol for Southport and more traffic patrols to increase police presence when these incidents happen, Kalamaras said.

Kalamaras said cars started to change around 2017 where people could just have the key fob in the vehicle with them and push a button to start the car. The car fob isn’t needed to get in the house and it’s easier for people to leave them in their vehicles.

“With that luxury, comes a cost,” he said.

He said cars are coming into neighborhoods every night and dropping off several teenagers who then walk along dark driveways, trying any car handle. If it opens, they’ll rummage inside and take items. They’ll also press on the pedal and if a light signals the fab is inside, then they’ll take the car too.

“If they don’t get it out of your driveway, then they might get it out of the next driveway or the driveway after,” Kalamaras said.

Weihe said the department also offers a number of educational programs on various types of crimes, as well as a program that will assess areas and offer ways to deter crime, ranging from higher cost solutions to free.

“We haven’t gotten a lot of requests for that but I want to put it out there that I’m available to do that for any community group, any organization in Fairfield,” he said.