Are CT schools safer after Sandy Hook?

Editor’s Note: In a series of stories this week, The Mirror is looking at how the shooting at Newtown changed Connecticut.

Millions of dollars have been spent in the past year better protecting students from threats coming from outside school buildings.

Since last December, when 26 children and educators were killed in Newtown, at least half of the schools throughout the state have installed new security cameras, shatter-proof glass doors and other security-related upgrades.

And while much of the focus -– and funding -– has been on protecting students from another active shooter, data show that students are more likely to be victims of bullying or involved in a fight with a classmate. Districts have had to find a balance between protecting students from outside threats by hiring security staff and hiring psychologists or other mental health specialists to identify and treat troubled students.

“We prepare for the worst case scenario,” said Jim RichetelliJr., chief operations officer for Milford Public Schools, whose district will receive the most money from the state for security upgrades. Milford will also spend additional money to hire four school-based police officers.

Nationwide, 42 children and educators across the country were killed while at school during the 2010-11 school year, the most recent year for which data is available, the U.S. Department of Education reports. In Connecticut’s public schools, officials identify more than 300 students each year who are victims of bullying; more than 15,000 fights take place and 700 violent crimes happen while students are at school. (See your school’s data and rankings below)

The greater chances of a student being harmed by a classmate than an intruder from outside a school has prompted some educators to call for a shift in the focus on school safety toward the more likely destructive encounters.

Reacting to the governor’s latest round of state funding for schools to upgrade their security equipment, the dean of Quinnipiac University’s School of Education called on the state to also come up with money for anti-bullying programs.

“I strongly encourage the governor to make significant investments in programs that might have prevented incidents such as the Sandy Hook tragedy,” Kevin Basmadjian wrote in a press release shortly after $5 million for security infrastructure was announced. “Some of these might include anti-bullying workshops for teachers, students, administrators, parents and the entire community.”

It’s unclear if Adam Lanza — the troubled 20-year-old responsible for the deadliest K-12 school shooting in U.S. history — was bullied when he attended the school as a child. In the state prosecutor’s final report of the event, some people interviewed recalled that the shooter had been bullied, although many teachers were unable to corroborate this. Both of Lanza’s parents reported that he had been bullied, according to the prosecutor.

Bullying sign

Photo credit: U.S. Department of Education

Regardless, teachers and school administrators are asking for help from the state to address bullying in their schools today, according to a report prepared for state legislators by the State Department of Education this spring.

“Districts are increasing their requests for support,” the department reports. Such requests include more funding so districts can provide training on bullying prevention for staff, students and parents.

Nationwide, 28 percent of students age 12 to 18 reported being the subject of some kind of bullying, according to the National Crime Victimization Survey conducted by the U.S. Department of Justice.

Connecticut state lawmakers in 2011 passed a law that aimed to overhaul districts’ response to bullying by doing the following: broadening the definition to include online interactions among students; requiring schools to set up school safety committees to address problems when they arise; and having the state begin tracking incidents of bullying.

As a result, the education department has reported that the number of reported incidents of bullying has steadily increased over the last several years, although officials say that’s only because of the added attention to the problem.

“By all measures, schools in Connecticut are becoming safer because the focus of their efforts is on improving school climate,” the department reports.

“There is a large and growing body of research that documents the relationships among bullying, school climate and student outcomes,” it reports, concluding that a positive learning environment helps diminish violent and deviant behaviors.

While schools focus on providing a safe environment for students to attend, statistics that can help measure the safety of Connecticut’s public schools show mixed findings. For example, the number of students bringing weapons to school has steadily declined over the last six reported school years, reports the education department. During the 2006-07 school year 1,953 students got in trouble for bringing a weapon to school compared with 1,203 students during the 2011-12 school year –- a 38 percent dip.

However, the number of violent crimes students committed against someone while at school increased from 445 to 765 incidents. And the number of fights has remained steady at about 15,000 a year. (See the year-by-year date here)

There is no consensus among educators in identifying which staff members make the most difference in improving a school’s climate and reducing violent incidents.

“Are social workers better, who can work with families, or are” school-based police officers?, State Board of Education member Charles Jaskiewicz asked during the panel’s meeting this month.

The department’s chief operating officer told him that the jury is still out.

Statewide, schools employ about 3,100 mental health professionals (counselors, social workers and psychologists) compared with about 625 security guards or school-based police officers. These figures remained steady in the 10 years preceding the Sandy Hook shootings, the department reports. However, where a student attends school drastically impacts the presence of security guards or availability of mental health professionals. (See school-by-school data here.)

The governor and education commissioner have both routinely said that local school districts are the ones to decide whom to hire to keep schools safe.

“Schools and districts are stepping up. There has been an emphasis on strengthening schools on both the outside and the inside,” Commissioner Stefan Pryor said this week. “It’s equally important that schools install electronic locking systems for doors and implement positive behavioral interventions and supports for students.”

Meanwhile, the state’s investment has focused on electronic locking systems and other improvements to harden schools from intruders. The state plans to spend $21 million this fiscal year so that 50 percent of the state’s public schools can upgrade these systems.

Included in the legislature’s new post-Sandy Hook law is the requirement that the state Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services provide training to help each school’s so-called safe school climate coordinator to recognize signs of mental disorders in students and connect them with the necessary professionals.

Lawmakers also passed a bill that requires the Department of Children and Families’ Emergency Mobile Psychiatric Service to collaborate with local school boards and school-based health centers to help better identify children with mental, behavior or emotional issues and to help them access the appropriate treatment program. Funding was not provided to implement this initiative.

“We had security measures, but they needed to be tightened,” said Richetelli, the chief operations officer for Milford schools. “It probably wouldn’t have taken place if not for Sandy Hook.”

Comments

comments