REGION 16 — The few dozen people who came out March 6 for a district meeting on a $1,955,000 appropriation for security improvements in the Region 16 school district did so in full support of the plan.
“We have an obligation to provide as much as possible a safe and secure learning environment for our students and our staff,” said Fred Smith, a Beacon Falls resident and security guard at Woodland Regional High School. “They deserve no less.”
(A video of the hearing can be viewed here.)
School security became a main concern of districts and the state after the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in December 2012. Following the shooting, a security audit was performed on each school in Region 16, which oversees schools in Beacon Falls and Prospect, and the district office.
“The safety and well-being of the students, staff and the visitors to Region 16 schools and facilities are paramount importance,” Superintendent of Schools Tim James said.
James said the audit revealed the district’s schools are safe, but recommended making a number of improvements.
After the audit, the Board of Education began compiling a list of improvements to be made at the schools. The board finalized the list in February.
The board approved the appropriation at a special meeting the day after the hearing. It will be voted on at a referendum set for April 10. Voting will take place from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. at the firehouse in Prospect and Laurel Ledge Elementary School in Beacon Falls.
If the board gets approval, it will bond the entire $1,955,000. However, the district will not be responsible for the whole cost.
The district was awarded a nearly $1.075 million grant from the state for safety upgrades in November. The grant funds will be used to reimburse the district on eligible expenses.
The district’s cost is estimated at $995,000. The cost includes the district’s match for the grant, about $612,000, and the cost of items not covered by the grant, which is estimated to be $383,000.
James reviewed the equipment that will be purchased and the work to be done at the schools for the audience at the hearing.
New digital cameras at the district’s five schools and the infrastructure needed to support the cameras make up about half of the $1,955,000 cost. The new camera system will allow police officers to access live footage from inside the schools. Also, security guards will have the same access through electronic tablets.
The list of district-wide upgrades also includes installing tinted window film on all ground-level windows, an intercom system with remote release at food service entry points, silent alarms in the schools with remote emergency buttons to alert first responders and tamper-resistant glass on the exterior doors at each school.
The tamper-resistant glass is not bullet-proof. Rather, it’s designed to withstand being shot multiple times without shattering.
James pointed out the same safety measures are being incorporated into the new Prospect Elementary School, which is currently under construction.
Algonquin and Community schools in Prospect will be closed when the school is scheduled to open in the fall of 2015. Although Algonquin and Community schools will only be open for just a year or so longer, improvements will be made at each school.
“We did not want to say, ‘Gee we’ll take our chances for a year.’ That’s just not acceptable,” James said.
James said all of the equipment that will be installed in the two schools will be taken out and used where it’s needed in the district once the schools are closed.
Along with the support of residents, the plan drew the backing of the top elected officials of Prospect and Beacon Falls.
“There are too many tragedies around,” Prospect Mayor Robert Chatfield said. “We don’t want to see it in the Region, the town of Beacon Falls or in Prospect.”
Chatfield said if a person wants to get into a school they’re going to do it even if the improvements are made. “But,” he said, “we should deter it.”
Beacon Falls First Selectman Christopher Bielik echoed Chatfield’s sentiments. He said the items being discussed won’t prevent a determined assailant from repeating the past.
Bielik, a retired naval officer who was a base commander during 9/11, referenced his military experience. He said it’s taught in the military that when terrorists are looking for a target they look for the “softest available target.”
“The biggest benefit we get is by making sure we’re not the softest target available,” Bielik said.
While no one spoke out against the plan, some parents questioned how the money is planned to be spent.
John Gullesh of Beacon Falls said he would like to see some of the money dedicated for the new cameras go towards securing outside areas that are exposed, such as where children get on and off the bus and play at recess.
Aaron Demarest of Prospect also touched on the money for the cameras.
“I see a lot in this proposal about security measures in terms of surveillance,” he said. “I’d really, as a parent, as a citizen, would like to see more in terms of reinforcement.”
Demarest said he’d like to see stronger doors, windows and locks — items that would give police more time to respond to a school in an emergency.
Prospect police Lt. Nelson Abarzua said a lot of research was done by law enforcement following the shooting at Sandy Hook. He said some suggestions to fortify schools, like putting bars on windows, can’t be done because they’re against the fire code.
Abarzua said he supports the district’s plan “1,000 percent.” He said the measures can’t guarantee that a child won’t be hurt, but said they will be a major deterrent.
Abarzua added the proposed safety measures are not just for school shootings. From a law enforcement perspective, he said, it also has to do with other instances like domestic disturbances and fighting.
“Our job is to keep our kids safe at all times,” Abarzua said. “This is not just for the shootings. It’s for everything else that happens in our daily lives.”