Armed guards for Region 16 schools on the table

REGION 16 — Officials are proposing hiring armed security guards for each of Region 16’s schools in the wake of last month’s shooting at a Florida high school.

“I think we have a responsibility to the students, staff and community to protect them to the best of our ability,” Superintendent of Schools Michael Yamin said.

The armed guards are included in Yamin’s 2018-19 school budget proposal. He’s scheduled to present his budget to the Board of Education on March 14 at 6 p.m. at Woodland Regional High School.

On Feb. 14, a 19-year-old gunman killed 17 students and staff members at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. The shooting ramped up the national discussion on school security and gun violence, and brought back memories of the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown when 26 students and staff members were killed.

Last month’s shooting led officials in Region 16, which is comprised of Beacon Falls and Prospect, to reflect on the district’s safety protocols and procedures, Yamin said.

The proposal is to hire part-time armed guards. State law passed after the Sandy Hook shooting — Connecticut Public Act No. 13-188 — requires armed personnel on school grounds to be either police officers that retired in good standing or active police officers. They must also complete yearly training, under the law.

The guards, which would be Region 16 employees, are estimated to cost $55,000, according to Yamin.

There are currently unarmed security guards at Woodland Regional High School. The armed guards would be in addition to the security personnel in place.

Yamin said he preferred having armed guards over hiring additional unarmed personnel.

“How is an (unarmed) guard any different than a teacher? How does it make the building any safer?” Yamin asked rhetorically.

Board of Education Chair Robert Hiscox, a retired teacher, said he never dreamed in his roughly 40-year teaching career that he’d be talking about armed guards in schools. He said he supports the proposal of having well-trained, armed personnel in the schools after discussing the issue with law enforcement officials from both towns.

“As a former educator, it saddens me to have to make a statement like that,” Hiscox said.

The issue before the school board, Hiscox said, will be whether to approve hiring the guards and arming them.

“The board has to make that decision,” he said.

The proposal has the support of members of the region’s Interdepartmental Safety Committee, which includes emergency personnel and officials from both towns.

“Some people are going to be upset with it, but it’s a sign of the times,” said Prospect Mayor Robert Chatfield, adding that the region and towns have been very proactive when it comes to school security.

Beacon Falls First Selectman Christopher Bielik said the issue is a difficult topic. He said officials don’t want the schools to become armed campuses. He’s opposed to arming teachers — an idea that is being debated nationally — but said having armed, trained professionals in schools is worth discussing.

“In this day and age, it’s worth having the discussion to see if that’s something people think has value or not,” Bielik said.

The region — and school districts around the state — amped up security measures after the Sandy Hook shooting. With the help of a state grant, Region 16 made security upgrades, including covering windows and doors at schools with a bullet-resistant polycarbonate material, adding more security cameras, and installing sally ports that require visitors to enter schools through two sets of locked doors.

Following the shooting in Florida, Yamin said, maintenance personnel checked all the exterior doors and locks, automated swipe entryways and motion detectors at the schools.

Hiscox said safety is the district’s number one priority. He stressed that the schools in the region are safe.

Working together with local police, the district has also been conducting ongoing training with staff and students.

“We’re supporting Region 16 in training and input, and working together as a team for the safety of our students, educators and communities,” Prospect police Lt. Nelson Abarzua said. “Working together as a team and supporting Region 16 is in the best interest of our communities and the safety of our students.”

Guidelines for training were put into place following the Sandy Hook shooting, Abarzua said. He said the region and towns try to go above and beyond the guidelines, and will be enhancing that training in the weeks ahead.

Later this month, school staff will receive training in preparing and responding to an active shooter or hostile event in a school, as well as crisis management protocol.

“Region 16’s goal is to have a safe environment and learning experience for the students for the future of our community,” Abarzua said.