FAIRFIELD COUNTY, Conn. – In the wake of the tragic Sandy Hook shooting nearly a year ago, the focus for many school districts across Fairfield County has been on making building improvements to increase the safety for students and staff.
The shooting deaths of 20 first-graders and six educators in nearby Newtown on Dec. 14, 2012, forced many school districts to examine shortfalls in security in their buildings and to practice emergency procedures, easing concerns of parents, staff and children.
“We will never be able to prevent every random act of violence, but we can take the steps necessary to make sure that our children and our teachers are as safe as possible," Gov. Dannel Malloy said of the millions of dollars in state grants for school improvements. "This funding allows an additional 435 schools to implement modern security measures that will make schools safer."
Districts receiving state grants include Danbury, Easton, Fairfield, Greenwich, Norwalk, Redding, Region 9, Ridgefield, Stamford, Westport and Wilton.
Many districts have posted security guards at each school, installed new closed-circuit cameras, increased police presence and upgraded intercom systems in school buildings.
Ridgefield, like several other districts, has added ID scanners that are manned by security guards at the front door to each of its nine schools. Many of the districts have been upgrading their locks. In Westport, interior locks have been added to all of the school buildings.
For others, such as Greenwich, the ID scanners are just part of the building improvements. Over the summer, the town's 17 school buildings, including the preschool, had many of systems upgraded or improved in a $1.4 million capital project approved in April.
“We just wanted to accelerate the enhancement program, and have it taken care of at one time rather than in phases,” said Ben Branyan, managing director of operations at Greenwich Public Schools.
The improvements included standardizing the door locks, adding ID readers to access points and upgrading the intercom systems.
“There is always room for improvement, you can always do something differently or better," Branyan said. "We believe that we have struck a balance with access for the parents and community and keeping our students safe.”
More than $1.5 million in state grants have been given to school districts in Fairfield County. In Stamford, where the city is spending more than $2 million, the grant added nearly $500,000 in funding to help in the efforts to upgrade security.
“We are looking at spending money from January through 2015 up to $2.2 million on security, which would mean we would be reimbursed more than half a million,” said Stamford Superintendent Winifred Hamilton.
The work is being done at nine of the city's schools, Hamilton said. Also, every elementary school staff member – from custodian and cafeteria worker to teacher and administrators – is being trained to use an alert fob. Each fob will give GPS locations and allow every member of staff to alert first responders if something is wrong.
In the Easton-Redding-District 9 school system, Superintendent Bernard Josefsberg told parents in a letter of a number of security upgrades being done.
“In all schools, we installed shatterproof film on all entry doors and windows adjacent to parking areas. We improved and or replaced locks, hardware and doors,” he said.
The state grants are being used to improve security infrastructure, purchase portable entrance security devices, install surveillance cameras, fortify vestibules, and add ballistic glass, solid core doors, computer-controlled electronic locks, entry door buzzer systems, scan card systems and panic alarms.
But building security is only one item after the Sandy Hook shooting. Many school districts are also increasing the attention paid to preventative measures through mental health programs.
Greenwich schools have had a longstanding program that Mary Forde, Director of Pupil Personnel Services, said the district has enhanced since Sandy Hook and the suicide of a student at the beginning of the school year.
“I think to the credit of the superintendent this is not something that was, ‘Oh my God we’ve got to change what we’re doing.’ I think we’re a system that really tries to pay attention to the emotional needs of the students,” Forde said. The district has increased the number of mental health professionals and social workers in the schools.
In Stamford, Hamilton also budgeted for additional socials workers for the middle and elementary schools.
“In addition we put our staff and some students through a mental health first aid trainer,” she said.
Schools have also been working with first responders to make sure that every aspect of the students lives in school are safe.
“I do think that we as a community do work very hard to make sure that doesn’t happen again,” Forde said.