- Associated Press - Saturday, August 22, 2015

MOOSUP, Conn. (AP) - Moosup Elementary School’s entrance has bullet-proof glass these days. And visitors to Griswold’s public schools now have to go through an ID monitor that does an automatic background and sex offender registry check.

In the 2 1/2 years since the Sandy Hook massacre, Eastern Connecticut towns have received more than $6.8 million to beef up security at their schools. Locally, towns have spent $2.8 million on added safety measures.

The money has come from a school security grant program created by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy as part of the Gun Violence Prevention and Children’s Safety Act passed by the state Legislature after Sandy Hook.

The first awards were announced in September 2013. Statewide, the grant program has provided about $43 million to schools so far.

“Sandy Hook opened our eyes to see this can happen, it can happen anywhere and we have to be ready to be able to respond to any emergency,” Killingly’s school security officer Peter Gerardi said.

For many parents, school administrators and students, the elementary school shooting in Newtown shook their sense of safety far more than any previous mass shootings.

“We will never be able to prevent every random act, but we can take the steps necessary to make sure that our children and our teachers are as safe as possible,” Malloy said in a press release when the grant program was announced.

“This funding allows districts with the most need to implement modern security measures that will make schools safer,” he said.

For a majority of Eastern Connecticut towns, that included updating aging or broken personal address systems, installing a buzz-in system at the building’s front doors and installing surveillance cameras and monitors in front offices.

“Everybody is pretty much doing the same things,” Gerardi said. “Districts choose what works for them.”

When Killingly received its first grant of $93,378 from the state, the town used it to add to its existing two-way radio system, to create a wireless panic button system and repair classroom locksets.

In Plainfield, Superintendent Kenneth R. DiPietro said the schools received a $182,000 state grant, along with $59,000 in town matching funds, for other items. Impact-resistant glass was installed in the vestibule at Moosup Elementary School, a project that was completed in June.

Officials have been mindful of creating a safe environment without making the schools seem like prisons, DiPietro said. To that end, administrators have met with parents, teachers and law enforcement officials to brainstorm ways to protect students, but still make them feel like they are in a school.

DiPietro said it’s crucial to find that balance.

“We don’t want bars on the windows and make the environment so restrictive,” he said. “So, the emergency phones aren’t hanging around someone’s neck. We want a safe environment, not a frightening one for kids.

“We’re trying to think rationally about how can we make the school, first of all, the safest place to be and how can we make sure the staff know how to respond to make an incident the least invasive or threatening.”

Although the state has given sizably to schools for security, municipalities and school districts have also spent additional funds outside the state grants for security measures.

According to Griswold Public Schools Superintendent Paul K. Smith, emergency interior locks were installed to the Griswold Middle School and Elementary School classrooms. Smith said they were scheduled to be part of the capital budget, but the Board of Finance authorized lock systems immediately after Sandy Hook instead of waiting until the budget passed. All classrooms now have interior locking systems. The locks cost the town $20,000.

In other cases the Building Committee appropriated funds for improvements. The committee approved $15,000 for a buzz-in system at the middle school to match the existing systems in the elementary and high school. Additionally, it appropriated $2,000 to install a swipe card reader at the elementary school door used for recess to allow re-entry.

This spring, taxpayers at an April Town Meeting appropriated about $35,000 to install security laminate on ground level glass. The laminate makes glass and windows harder to shoot through and would give school administrators more time to react to a shooter attempting to enter the school.

Smith said those funds are eligible for reimbursement under the state’s program. In the future, the school intends to install safety laminate on all glass in the schools.

This summer, Griswold has continued to increase safety measures. A visitor badge machine and software by Raptor Technology was installed in each of the school building offices. Its $5,000 price tag came from the education budget. The system requires guests to present a photo ID upon arrival at a school. The IDs are scanned and a visitor’s badge is produced with the photo and name of the visitor, time of arrival and location of the visit included on the badge. While scanning an ID, the software performs a full background check in all 50 states, as well as every sex offender list for every state - all within roughly five seconds.

Ken Willey, who has children in the Griswold schools, said he supports the increased safety measures 100 percent.

“Some people think waiting to be buzzed in after announcing yourself and your reason to enter is a bother, but I think it’s great,” he said. “I’m glad to know the doors are locked.”

In the future, he’d like to see a school resource officer there.

“I wish there was funding to implement that program again,” he said. “That added security is a great benefit for the schools. I also think it’s good that the schools practice yellow and red drills, so the kids know what to do in an emergency.”

Smith said he hopes the state eventually offers funding for a school resource officer.

Other schools continue to install safety measures using various sources of funding.

Athena Nagel the business administrator for the Norwich Public Schools, said the district has spent about $500,000 on security measures, including cameras, key cards and speaker installations. The money came from bonds, grants and the city.

Over the years Norwich schools have adopted network and technology upgrades. The phone systems were improved to include caller ID access and panic buttons. The schools have also undergone building changes. Like many other public schools, Norwich has adopted a buzz-in system.

“We’ve changed the entryways to make visitors more visible through the monitors,” Nagel said.

When a visitor comes to the door, the office staff asks them to remove hats and sunglasses. They also ask them a number of question prior to entering.

“There are different practices for security and we’re learning from each and every event,” Nagel said.

Public schools across America have beefed security measures in the past three years.

A survey done by National Center for Education Statistics’ study on School Safety and Discipline released in May examined the nation’s public schools from 2013-2014 and found that despite an overall decrease in violent crime, schools have continued to increase security measures.

Nearly 65 percent of the nation’s public schools reported at least one violent incident in 2013-14. From 2009 to 2010, 74 percent of schools reported at least one violent incident. The violent incident category includes rape or attempted rape, fighting with a weapon, and robbery with or without a weapon. The rate of violent incidents also fell, from 25 for every 1,000 students to 15 per 1,000 students.

Meanwhile, the proportion of schools using surveillance cameras increased from 61 percent to 75 percent between 2009-10 and 2013-14, while the proportion using an electronic system to notify parents of school emergencies increased from 63 percent to 82 percent.

According to Rita Stewart, the emergency management program supervisor of the state’s Division of Emergency Management and Homeland Security, another $10 million has been allocated to the school security grant program in the bond bill. Stewart said once the money is allocated by the state Bond Commission, the state will release information to the schools on how to apply.

DiPietro said there’s always more to be done.

“There’s no question you can’t have a tragedy as sad as Newtown and not say, ‘can’t we do more?’”

___

Information from: Norwich Bulletin, https://www.norwichbulletin.com


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