The most effective plan for school safety is built 1 percent at a time and to be effective, any changes must be sustainable, reasonable and meaningful.
That was the message that School Superintendent Joseph V. Erardi Jr. delivered to a group of nearly 100 parents at the Derynoski Elementary School as the Southington Board of Education and Southington Police Department hosted a community safety forum Tuesday evening.
“I can’t say what every long-term change will be, but safety is the Board of Educations trump card. Safety trumps everything that they do,” Erardi said. “We are not doing this to make people feel better. We are here because we want to assure the safety of our children, not just today but for tomorrow and the future.”
The program, an ongoing community discussion sparked by the tragic shooting at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown on Dec. 14 that left 20 children and six educators dead, proved an important chance for residents to learn about a three-phase effort to better secure Southington schools, some of which has already been implemented, according to officials.
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The schools have already begun “immediate and sustainable changes,” Erardi said.
The second phase, which involves central office staff, involves creating a long-range plan to be delivered by June 30 and the third includes creating further community partnerships between residents and the Board of Education.
The district is also conducting constant planned drills, which will be directly announced to students to prevent fear, at all schools including practicing lockdowns. These efforts are already underway, with a planned drill this week at Southington High School.
But the efforts haven’t been enough for some parents, who stepped up to the podium and said it is still too easy for strangers to enter the schools without identifying themselves properly.
Three parents indicated that they have entered the schools during the school day and had the opportunity to just enter the building despite and existing requirement that all doors remain locked. One also said he was able to enter through three locations at one of the schools, even while school was in session.
“I walked into one of the schools during the day last week and was never asked to identify myself. The kids were in the cafeteria. What could have happened?” one participant asked.
Erardi told the woman he would investigate the ability to roam free into the school, which remained unnamed, immediately and that the district would continue to implement immediate change.
Erardi and members of the Board of Education cautioned, however, that knee-jerk reactions such as placing armed guards and metal detectors at each school immediately would not serve to curb the fears expressed by residents since the December tragedy.
“I can’t speak for the Board of Education, but I am not in favor of metal detectors. It won’t serve to prevent a tragedy like what occurred (at Sandy Hook),” Erardi said.
The district isn’t working alone to implement changes either. Southington Police Lt. Lowell DePalma said the police department has a plan in place to address all kinds of emergency situations and has taken steps to improve police presence immediately. The department has instructed officers to walk within the schools and said an officer has been to every classroom since the tragedy. Officers are also instructed to work on their reports from school grounds rather than at the department or other points in town.
In addition, officers are equipped with a blueprint of every school, contained on laptops that accompany each officer in their patrol cars.
DePalma also encouraged residents to not be afraid to speak up, even if they an unsure whether an individual is actually suspicious.
“People always say to us ‘we know you are busy and have better things to do.’ That’s baloney,” DePalma said. “It’s our job to check on these things, to make sure we know who’s who and who belongs. We want people to speak up, even if they just aren’t sure.”
The efforts are a good start, said Stacey Pillsbury, but she questioned if enough is being done in order to prepare for situations that could potentially be even worse than what occurred with Adam Lanza in Newtown.
“What if he set fire to the school to lure the children out first? Are we thinking of more complex scenarios?” she asked.
DePalma assured Pillsbury that the department is constantly undergoing training and discussing the “what ifs” and how to respond to each school individually for the fastest and most effective response during an emergency situation.
Pillsbury also made another point, however, and one well received by those at the forum Tuesday: Community involvement will remain a key point in school safety and all parents should be asked from birth on, what is your plan?
“At the first meeting (the Sunday following the Newtown tragedy), the entire board sat here and listened as hundreds came to express their concerns,” said Board of Education chairman Brian Goralski said. “Tonight, we are privileged, as a full board, to hear from the community again.”
“The most important thing for us is you, the community. There is nothing we take more seriously than the safety and security of our buildings and everyone who uses them,” he said.
Have enough measures been taken at Southington schools to assure safety? What steps would you have implemented to improve security?
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