How safe are our schools?

Fairfield officials explained the balance between protecting children and staff inside schools, without making them afraid to attend classes, during a community forum held Jan. 9 at Fairfield Warde High School.

“Eleven thousand Americans are killed by gun violence each year,” noted First Selectman Mike Tetreau, addressing the 300 people who attended the forum. “It’s not just a Fairfield problem, it’s not just a school problem. Safety is a problem for all of us, everywhere.”

In addition to getting an overview of current school safety measures from town officials, forum attendees submitted a robust array of questions. In the coming weeks, the town will unveil an enhanced security plan, identifying which measures take priority and how such measures will be funded.

Police Chief Gary MacNamara noted that even before the 2012 Sandy Hook massacre, Fairfield schools were exemplars of safety.

“We take the subject of safety and security very seriously,” MacNamara said, “and we work very hard to make sure that everyone who works in our school system understands the threats that are out there. As we all saw last December, evil does exist. We must do everything we can to make our facilities as safe as possible — not just in our schools but in the entire community.”

MacNamara said Fairfield’s school safety program dates back several decades, with the post-9/11 era stepping up the focus on security measures. Twice-yearly lockdown drills are a key safety enhancement the schools have instituted within the past year. All but three schools have completed their first drills for the 2013-14 academic year.

Moreover, elementary and middle schools now require staff to use card-keys to re-enter buildings during the school day. At Fairfield’s two high schools, staff members monitor school entrances at all times. In addition, every classroom has a phone/intercom linked to the Police Department’s 911 system.

One lesson learned from the post-911 period, MacNamara said, is for town officials to minimize risk by concentrating safety measures in places and at times when they will have the most impact. The normal school day is critical because that is when school buildings house the most people.

A key resource in school security is Sgt. Edward Weihe, whose office is in the Board of Education building. Sgt. Weihe acts as the Police Department’s “eyes and ears” within the school system. In addition, eight patrol officers visit the town’s 27 public and private schools at different intervals each day.

Even as they focus on limiting access, officials must also provide school security of an opposite sort: the ability for students and staff members to exit quickly in the event of a fire, explosion or other incident inside a school building.

“We can’t chain the doors shut,” Fairfield Fire Marshal Bill Kessler said.

Kessler pointed out that Connecticut was one of the first states to adopt strict school fire safety measures following the Our Lady of the Angels fire in Chicago in 1958. Ninety-two students and three Catholic nuns perished in the blaze, while dozens more were injured.

One attendee asked whether new technologies are being considered to enhance the safety of school facilities, children and school personnel.

“While we can’t go into specifics, certainly every option is on the table,” schools Superintendent Dr. David Title said.

Several others asked about boosting security personnel, even to the point of having a police officer stationed at every school. In 2013, the Fairfield Police Department looked at ways to add to its staff, with an eye toward providing a larger presence in schools. Thus far, it has not secured sufficient funding to do so.

Title said the Riverfield School renovation may provide a test case for bulletproof window film.

“We’re enhancing Riverfield’s entry, and ballistic film is definitely under consideration,” he said.

Several questions concerned the frequency and nature of school lockdown drills. These drills aim to teach participants what threats look like and how to manage in a crisis, Title said.

“For a short time, they are the first responders,” he said.

A school lockdown also serves as a key tactic in delaying a crisis until the right people arrive on scene, he said.

Stepping outside his usual role a bit,Title called for better public awareness of the role school psychologists and social workers play in preventing mental health issues from leading to school violence. He also called for better public mental health services and stronger control over access to weaponry.

Title plans to hold similar forums for each school’s Parent-Teacher Association (PTA) to get the word out about school safety. Consistency is crucial because many Fairfield families have students in multiple schools and they must receive the same information about what is going on — whether in a crisis or on an ordinary school day.

“At the end of the day,” Title said, “we want students and staff to have enough information so that they won’t be afraid to go to school.”

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