The question post-Newtown: How to keep schools safe?

When it comes to security systems at its schools, New Haven officials say cost has never been a factor for their cash-strapped district. It’s not just that they prioritize security: The state pays almost the entire bill to install things like cameras, buzzer systems and locks for every classroom.

Security infrastructure is a cost the state picks up, to varying degrees, in districts across Connecticut. On Friday morning, the State’s Bond Commission is expected to approve $280 million to pay for local school construction projects — some of which will go to ensure students are safe.

“The state clearly recognizes the need to support security,” said Will Clark, New Haven’s chief operating officer. The state covers somewhere between 70 percent and 100 percent of the costs of the city’s construction costs.

As the Bond Commission meets, citizens from across the country are expected at the state Capitol complex to testify about school security in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. On Dec. 14, a gunman shot his way into the suburban Newtown school and killed 20 children and six educators.

The incident has led lawmakers to question what — if anything — schools can do to improve school safety to prevent future school shootings.

“It is one of the top issues we have to respond to,” House Speaker J. Brendan Sharkey, D-Hamden, told a roomful of municipal leaders last week in Cromwell.

Preparing for the unimaginable

Sandy Hook Principal Dawn Hochsprung was passionate about school safety.

At the start of the school year she wrote parents to inform them about the school’s new security protocols, which included showing identification to enter the building.

“Safety first at Sandy Hook,” Hochsprung wrote on her Twitter account, accompanied by a picture of students and staff during their annual evacuation drill.

safety drill picture

Picture on Twitter of safety evacuation drill at Sandy Hook less than 2 months before the shooting

Two months later, the new entrance protocols and safety drills would prove not to be enough to withstand a determined Adam Lanza, who blasted his way into the school with a Bushmaster AR-15, a .223-caliber semiautomatic rifle.

“I think we had a lot of best practice in place… It is very difficult to withstand an AR-15,” the district’s superintendent Janet Robinson said this week following a meeting with the State Board of Education.

So how can districts prepare?

School safety experts say the most important response for school staff to master is informing teachers an intruder is in the building and to get their doors locked immediately.

This can be the difference between a handful of deaths and dozens, said Michael Dorn, the executive director of Safe Havens International, a nonprofit school safety organization based in Georgia. Dorn has investigated several previous school shootings across the country, but is not working on the investigation in Newtown.

Dorn said that in crisis, often teachers freeze and await instructions on what to do, while their classroom doors stay unlocked.

In New Haven, some of the schools have the ability to lock doors around the school with the click of a button electronically. Two bills before the legislature’s Education Committee would require the installation of “panic buttons” in every public school, or to qualify for school construction funding.

It is unclear if lockdown instructions were given at Sandy Hook, though the central office intercom was on during the incident, which signaled to staff that something was wrong.

Among the flood of bills proposed in the General Assembly surrounding school safety, one bill would require that every school have a “lock-down plan” and another that districts routinely practice them.

A local responsibility

State law currently leaves security decisions largely to local districts’ discretion.

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy told reporters last week that school security decisions should be up to each district.

“That is by and large a local decision to make,” he said.

One of the few requirements that school officials say is in place is that districts have three emergency drills a year, for things like a fire or intruder.

“We can do better than that. We can strengthen our laws,” said Rep. Andy Fleischmann, D-West Hartford, the co-chairman of the Education Committee and member of the legislature’s special task force looking into school safety.

Fleischmann said that the state is largely left in the dark as to whether these drills actually happen and what security protocols districts have in place. He said state involvement might be necessary to help guide districts in implementing and training teachers in best practices.

While the need may be there to increase state involvement, state officials at the State Department of Education say there is no intention to share an individual school or district’s security strategy. Parents will obviously remain in the loop, but the intent of such privacy is to ensure security details do not get into the hands of someone with bad intentions.

school safety measures

Source: U.S. Department of Education, 2009-10 school year

Fact: Guns are on campus

During the 2010-11 school, school administrators encountered 1,203 different incidents of students’ bringing a weapon to school — a steady decrease from nearly 2,000 incidents four years before, reportsthe SDE.

Overall, school violence is on the decline, in Connecticut and nationwide.

“Schools are much safer today than they were 20 years ago,” said Dorn, the school safety expert. “When you look at the number of children dying at school, a student is more likely to be hit by lightning.”

School police officers stationed at schools and teachers are also able to carry a firearm on school property if granted permission by district officials. The state does not track which districts have armed staff at its schools, but the head of the state’s superintendent association said some districts in Connecticut allow it.

Around the country, almost one-third of schools already have armed security staff, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Connecticut is one of 18 states that allow some people to carry weapons on school grounds, reports the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, a nonprofit based in San Fransico. In Connecticut, staff members need to get permission from their principal to carry a concealed weapon to school.

Malloy has publicly scorned the National Rifle Association’s recommendation to arm teachers.

“Let me say this: more guns are not the answer. Freedom is not a handgun on the hip of every teacher, and security should not mean a guard posted outside every classroom,” Malloy said during his State of the State Address to the General Assembly. “That is not who we are in Connecticut, and it is not who we will allow ourselves to become.”

At the state’s public college campuses, most have an armed police officer. All of the state’s public four-year institutions have armed police officers, but only of the 12 community colleges have one, according to the Board of Regents for Higher Education. Among the private colleges, Yale University, University of New Haven, University of Bridgeport and Fairfield University are the only ones that have armed guards.

But that may soon change following the events of Newtown.

Manchester Community College is awaiting board approval to move forward with purchasing guns for its police officers in the very near future.

College President Gena Glickman said the purpose is to speed up the response time if an incident does happen on her campus.

A spokeswoman for the regents said they plan to hire a contractor to conduct a safety audit of the campuses to determine if there are areas that needed to be further addressed.

More security in schools

Schools across the state and country rushed to increase the number of school security guards at their schools following Newtown’s tragic events.

But questions remains, like will this added security remain when the spotlight fades?

“I think that’s where we are right now. People need visible signs of security and armed police officers, it’s comforting to them,” Robinson told reporters after the state board meeting.

In Middletown, the elementary schools were adorned with police officers outside the entrances in the days after the shootings at Sandy Hook. They have since moved on.

Will the presence of these overhauled security measures make students feel more or less safe?

Jo Ann Freiberg, an official with the state education department that helps districts create positive school environments, said while security is necessary it may cause anxiety for students.

“The more [buzzers, cameras, metal detectors, etc.] that is layered on, the more that gives the impression there is something to be worried about,” she said during an interview.

But, in New Haven, Clark said he thinks students appreciate the metal detectors.

“It makes them feel safer when they come in,” he said.

Nationwide, only 1.4 percent of schools require their students to pass through metal detectors, reports the U.S. Department of Education for the 2009-2010 school year. Almost 92 percent secure their entrances and monitor who enters.

And then there’s the question of whether having police officers on campus will lead to a spike in school-based arrests.

Research is mixed on whether there is a correlation between having a school resource officer in a school and increases in arrests in some of the schools.

In Connecticut, the governor’s policy office has made recommendations on what the appropriate role of officers in schools are. The judicial system has also begun sending minor infractions back to the schools to handle.

The message: this is a school discipline issue, not an issue for the courts.

Abby Anderson, the executive director of the state Juvenile Justice Alliance, said the key is for districts to set up parameters on their role in the school.

“If you are going to have police in schools you need to very clearly lay out whose job is what,” she said.

Nine school districts have signed agreements with their police departments and implemented the state’s recommended model — including Ansonia, Hamden, Hartford, Norwalk, Norwich, Vernon, Windsor and Region 10.

Another key is only having officers stationed in the school that volunteer for the job and are eager to work with school-aged students, Anderson said.

But the question remains on where the money is going to come from for school security personnel. While the state spends billions each year on education — most of which comes to districts in undesignated block grants — there is no pot of funding specifically for these security staff.

Federal funding for this staff provided after the mass shooting at Columbine High School and Virginia Tech largely dried up a few years ago, and districts and police departments have been left to figure out how to pay for this staff.

Many districts couldn’t find the money, including at several of the state’s vocational-technical high schools and in the schools in the 11 communities patrolled by the State Police.

“We pulled them back. As fiscal times got harder, we put them back on patrol,” Lt. Paul Vance, a state police spokesman, said of the 15 officers the state police used to have in the schools. They now fund none.

President Obama last week proposed $150 million for districts that want school officers, a funding stream Malloy supports.

“I think it’s a great program. It does lend some added security to the school, but it’s more about building relations” with students, Malloy said.

Unmet needs

The state may pay the majority of the costs for districts to secure its buildings during construction, but there is no funding available for the upkeep, said Clark.

“It’s like you have a car but don’t change your oil — your engine is going to seize up,” he said.

He estimates New Haven spends “hundreds of thousands” of dollars each year repairing and maintaining the security systems that are in place.

“It can get expensive really quick,” he said.

It is also unclear how often districts come to the state asking for help with security costs, as the state does not specifically track school security spending in its construction applications and funding awards. The state did have $10 million for a grant for districts to apply to cover security costs (some of which was raided to help close a deficit), and a spokesman at the Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection said that funding was heavily sought after.

Fleischmann, chairman of the education committee, said he’s not convinced every district is seeking school construction funding for security.

“There are many districts that have taken advantage… But there are districts that just haven’t done so,” he said.

Nationwide, security infrastructure tends to be more prevalent in the high schools, according to the U.S. Department of Education data from the 2009-10 school year.

Robinson — whose Newtown district has been credited by many for doing things right when it came to school security — said there were different strategies for safety when it came to high schools and elementary schools. But part of the debate is determining which schools should increase security standards.

“Does anyone really anticipate this happening at an elementary school?” she said.

Follow Jacqueline Rabe Thomas on Twitter @jacquelinerabe