A difficult conversation about kids, safety and costs

Six weeks to the day after a gunman invaded Sandy Hook Elementary School, legislators began a delicate conversation Friday about how far Connecticut must go to fortify schools, safeguard children and reassure parents.

Experts and laymen, mothers and cops, teachers and budget officers shared their views on technology and best practices, magnetic locks and ballistic glass, police tactics and panic buttons -- and yes, the question of who will pick up the costs.


Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor testifies.

No one questioned that change is coming to Connecticut's 1,236 public schools after Sandy Hook, just as it did to federal buildings and public plazas after Oklahoma City and to America's airports and parking garages after 9-11.

What will be the new normal? What are reasonable precautions? Impregnable schools? If so, what to do about playgrounds and school buses and Saturday soccer leagues and nursery schools and theaters and camps?

Stefan Pryor, the state's education commissioner, is familiar with many of the questions confronting local officials, legislators and educators. An overlooked element of his varied resume suddenly is relevant.

"I worked on the recovery from the World Trade Center disaster. I was the head of the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation," Pryor said. "In the wake of 9-11, we experienced many of the same impulses and many of the same design questions."

Would expansive glass windows be banned from new skyscrapers? Would skyscrapers themselves cease to be constructed? How should Ground Zero, a monument and museum, be protected? Would metal detectors be a comfort or intrusion to the victims' relatives, who view the site as a final resting place?

Most of those questions were resolved in New York. Skyscrapers are rising in Manhattan. And, yes, the new world trade center is dressed in glass, albeit with tempered panes reinforced with lamination.

Threat assessments and design issues posed by 9-11 and Sandy Hook may be different, but not the basic challenge: Where is the line between reacting and overreacting when the unimaginable becomes real?

"It is possible to move quickly and thoughtfully," Pryor said Friday after testifying before a legislative committee studying school safety. "What's essential is that we ensure that as we fortify our schools, we don't create fortresses."

Sandy Hook Elementary was locked when Adam Lanza arrived on Dec. 14, armed with a semiautomatic Bushmaster AR-15. In minutes, the intruder shot his way into the school, killed the principal who confronted him, five other staff members and 20 first-grade students.

Patrice McCarthy, the deputy director and general counsel of the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education, told legislators that Sandy Hook's staff was trained in current procedures dealing with intruders.

"Obviously, this tragedy has caused every district to reexamine what they already have in place," McCarthy said. "This has become a priority, not just for Connecticut, but around the country."

In Connecticut, schools come under local control. But a bipartisan legislative task force is trying to find consensus on broader standards, then tackle the secondary question of who will pay to meet them.

Bills already proposed by legislators include requiring that all new school construction projects include panic buttons in every classroom and allowing districts to create policies for those permitted to bring guns on school campuses.

In total, there are nearly two dozen bills proposed by individual legislators addressing school security.

On Friday, legislators heard suggestions during a public hearing at the state Capitol complex that ranged from arming teachers and janitors to having a social workers in every school.

Many schools across the state do not have a social worker, psychologist, or counselor, reports the State Department of Education. During the 2010-11 school year, the most recent year for which data is available, districts across the state had 3,119 full-time counselors, psychologists and social workers on duty -- a 4 percent increase over the previous five years.

Jo Ann Freiberg, a school climate specialist for the State Department of Education, said that having adults in every school who can make connections with students and identifying problem behavior is a great strategy to ensure safety.

"If we make sure kids are connected to an adult, we can make sure kids don't go off," she said.

One underlying theme of school shootings, she said, is that the student felt alienated from their peers and oftentimes, he was bullied.

Department of Children and Families Commissioner Joette Katz Thursday told members of the Children's Committee that she believes having these professionals in schools can be life-saving.

"I would like to see mental health clinics in every high school," Katz said.

Katz, Joette

Department of Children and Families Commissioner Joette Katz: 'I would like to see mental health clinics in every high school.'

Katz also said the stigma around seeking out mental health services also needs to end. DCF spends about $16 million a year providing developmental and mental health services for those children in need but  who are not in state custody because they were abused or neglected by their parents.

Cost was a concern Friday.

"School security measures cannot be done on the cheap," said Danbury Mayor Mark Boughton, chairman of a school security study group convened by the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities.

Of the school personnel paid for by districts -- overwhelmingly the largest cost for schools -- 2 percent of the positions are for security purposes. Statewide, there are 661 staff members devoted to security, though it is unclear how many schools are assigned police officers.

Putting a police officer in every school could cost more than $60 million, assuming a ballpark cost of at least $50,000 for each of 1,236 schools.

Waterford Police Lt. David Burton, who trains school resource officers, said he is aware of no elementary school with a permanently assigned police officer.

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy said he expects that physical improvements will be made at nearly every school, but no decisions have been made about how much of the cost will be met by the state.

"It's an item that clearly is on our minds," Malloy said. He added, "More likely than not, it will be a shared obligation.”

David Lenihan of the Connecticut Association of School Business Officials urged the legislators to set flexible guidelines for school security.

"It is imperative that any changes that come from these efforts be funded, sustainable and such funding does not come at the expense of other reductions," Lenihan said. "In short, no unfunded mandates."

Rep. Andy Fleischmann, D-West Hartford, co-chairman of the task force's subcommittee on school safety, said the legislators are sensitive to the fears of parents after Sandy Hook, but they are trying to be guided by facts.

"I'm happy to say I've had conversations with members of this task force already in which members have raised the point that we need to focus on risks and data and not get swept away by emotion," Fleischmann said.

Fleischmann said one goal of the subcommittee is to assess risk. Is the greatest threat from an intruder who arrives without warning? Or, as in the case of shootings at Columbine and Virginia Tech, does it arise from missing signs of mental illness or anti-social behavior?

"We're going to do our best to respect the data, respect the realities and do everything we can mitigate risk for schoolchildren," Fleischmann said.

Follow Mark Pazniokas on Twitter @CTMirrorPaz

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