The head of Darien Schools said he would not recommend placing armed guards at the elementary schools in light the Newtown shootings, but instead would like to consider placing “security management personnel” on school grounds.
Dr. Stephen Falcone, superintendent, presented the Board of Selectmen with a report on school security at the board’s meeting on Monday, Jan. 7.
“It is kind of unfortunate that we’re here delivering this report, based on the situation that occurred in” December, Falcone told the board. “But I wanted to articulate first that school security continues to be and has been a focus for us, particularly in the post-Columbine days. I was assistant principal at Darien High School during that period. We’ve done a lot throughout the district to improve security since then.”
Falcone said he would not recommend adding armed guards, but would consider discussing with the Board of Education the possibility of placing security at the buildings. He also said he would like to work with police to establish a police liaison at each school, similar to what is happening informally at Middlesex Middle School. The high school has an officer on campus at all times during the school day.
Police have been working with the schools to determine if their emergency preparedness measures are adequate, said Chief Duane Lovello.
“Right after the tragedy in Newtown, we did request from the Board of Education a copy of all the lockdown policies at all of the schools,” Lovello told the selectmen. “We will be doing an internal review of these policies to determine that they’re up to date, that they represent best practices, that we can take the lessons from other communities and apply them here.”
Falcone said he believes the emergency response plan is adequate, but that it needs to be updated. The schools are required to perform at least 10 fire drills annually, with one drill intended to represent a non-fire emergency, such as an active shooter or severe weather event. It’s unclear when the last drill of that kind happened.
Police and some school officials expect to run a lockdown drill when school is out to iron out the drill procedures before implemented school-wide. Lovello said that ever since the Columbine, Colo., murders in 1999, all police departments now specialize in responding to a school shooting.
“Columbine did change a lot of things,” Lovello said. “It did change how police respond to what’s called an active shooter incident. The Newtown police responded very appropriately. It was a terrible tragedy, but it could have been a lot worse had the lessons learned from Columbine not been applied in Newtown.”
After Newtown, Michael Lynch, schools facilities director, performed a district-wide assessment of all security hardware, such as door locks and cameras, to ensure all equipment was functional and determine what needed to be fixed or replaced.
Falcone noted that all schools have magnetic keyless entries at the main doors. A door opens into a vestibule, and visitors are then required to be buzzed in. The elementary schools have welcoming centers staffed by parent volunteers who sign people in. There are specific zones for parents who pick-up or drop-off their children, separate from bus zones.
Falcone said he would also like to examine the possibility of having the schools’ security cameras tied into the police system, so officers can observe the premises in real time.
“If that [technology] exists, we at least have to take a look at it,” he said, adding that emergency communication systems, such as Reverse 911 and email systems, should also be considered.
“Safety and security is not simply a crisis issue, though,” he said, “it’s the daily safety and security, health and well-being of adults and students in that building.”
The superintendent also discussed the school culture and how that relates to ensuring the schools remain both welcoming to guests and students, but also safe and secure. One aspect could be requiring teachers and staff to wear identifying badges at all times. Other districts have hired consultants to overhaul security measures, Falcone said, but Darien has done it internally.
“We’ve done this pretty much on our own,” he said. “We’ve got good people and a good working relationship with our police. The police department in Darien has been more than cooperative in terms of providing a person, a safe presence, in and around school buildings.”
Selectman David Bayne asked Falcone what’s being done to address bullying and the increasing number of children in crisis. Falcone said that has always been on the schools’ radar.
“Certainly since this incident in December, all of our mental health people were on heightened alert,” he said. “Children who feel isolated, alienated, not protected — there is the potential for some difficulty there.”
The schools offered social and emotional support services for teachers, focusing mainly on elementary teachers.
“They’re on 6.5 hours a day straight, with little breaks,” he said. “I think that they had to really be particularly strong — that’s not to discount the high school or middle school, but just the manner of the rhythm of the day, it requires them to be on.
“That’s something we’re going to continue to always focus on — making sure kids are connected and that they’re getting our support.”