No one solution to keeping schools safe
Safety experts: Meet with more than 850 officials to recommend a multipronged approach
No single solution will keep children safe in schools, but improving entrance procedures, educating students and staff on school crisis plans and an increase in responsive mental health services are essential to progress, Connecticut education officials said Tuesday in Hartford.
More than 850 school, municipal and emergency officials attended Monday's security symposium coordinated by state education groups and the U.S. Department of Education.
The program was quickly pulled together to offer guidance for improving school security following the Dec. 14 shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in which six adults and 20 children died.
"This is a very complex problem," Joseph Cirasuolo, executive director of the Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents, said at a briefing Tuesday about Monday's day-long program, which covered prevention, preparedness, response and recovery.
"Nobody can put this together in isolation. Each community must include their school leaders and staff, their municipal officers, police and fire departments and mental health professionals. They all have to be part of the planning process," he said. "No one size fits all. Each community is unique.''
Several education organizations are working on gun-control polices, but officials didn't expect to take a leadership role on the issue when the General Assembly convenes Wednesday.
Cirasuolo said about one-third of schools already have armed school resource officers.
The national experts who spoke at the symposium said they don't recommend arming educators, Cirasuolo said, adding if armed guards are stationed in schools, they must be trained like police, who receive ongoing firearms training.
Karissa Niehoff, executive director of the Connecticut Association of Schools and the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference, said the symposium helped her realize the Newtown shooting will change "how we practice what we do in our schools."
She said more educator training with a stronger component on crisis preparedness is needed.
"A key component to addressing prevention is addressing mental health issues," Niehoff said. "That has to be at the core, and schools can't do it alone."
She said research shows that up to 20 percent of schoolchildren suffer from mental health issues and the majority are not being addressed.
Schools and communities must provide students a safe place to discuss issues they might hear about that could threaten someone's safety, she said, which was a critical point that attorney Shamus O'Meara made at the symposium.
"What Shamus said was that there is no profile of a school shooter," Robert Rader, executive director of the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education, said Tuesday. "It's incumbent upon schools to develop the trust and confidence of students so they can go to talk to teachers if they hear something that might affect safety."
"We can't build fortresses," Rader said. "We want them to be welcoming."
Brookfield Superintendent of Schools Anthony Bivona attended the symposium with two principals and other staff.
"It was a beneficial day,'' he said, in part because it affirmed many initiatives his district has taken.
While his district has made major changes to its school access, Bivona said the challenge is to increase security so it can't be breached, and maintain a balance so schools remain community buildings.
Danbury schools Finance Director Joseph Martino, among six city staff who attended the symposium, said he is attracted to the idea of collaborating with other districts on technology.
Overall, hearing experts discuss their district procedures provided insight, which Martino said will be useful as Danbury evaluates what needs to be improved.
Major Ian Moffett, of the Miami Police Department, discussed the need to design and practice an incident-response plan, and Marleen Wong, a professor at the University of Southern California, discussed tools to help students, families and communities recover from tragedies.
Two architects spoke about designing or altering buildings to improve security features, particularly controlling building access and having a clear sightline from the front door to the parking lot.
The architects urged that police and fire departments become familiar with all building access points.
"Newtown did as much as they could," Rader said. "That's what hurts so much."