School safety. It's the issue on everyone's mind in the wake of the deadly school shooting in Newtown last month. And like nearly every municipality in the state — and indeed the nation — officials in Orange are moving quickly toward implementing a series of measures to make sure students and faculty are better protected in the event of an emergency.
A newly convened group called the School Security Ad-Hoc Committee met Thursday afternoon to go over the many options available, and to prioritize which ones would be put in place right away. The meeting came just a few days after many of the members — a cross section of the community, including the superintendent of schools, teachers, PTO leaders, Board of Education members, as well as representatives of School Facilities and the police and fire departments — attended a school security symposium in Southington.
The meeting also took place on the day that a California high school student was shot in a science classroom by another student. The genesis, of course, is the Dec. 14 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School that took the lives of 20 first graders and six educators.
Already, since the Newtown school shooting, Orange Police have:
- Had a greater presence at schools
- Increased patrols
- DARE officer John Aquino is rotating randomly among the schools
Security firms have also visited schools to assess safety, identify areas that can be improved and issue recommendations. Those reports are aiding the School Security Ad-Hoc Committee.
"Every second we save ... it's huge on the back end," said Mike Luzzi, director of facilities.
"The technology is limitless," Assistant Police Chief Anthony S. Cuozzo said. "It all comes down to the ability to write a check."
Among the new safety and security features that officials are working toward are:
Installing Panic Buttons
The buttons would be installed at all four public schools in Orange. According to documents provided by the committee, once pushed it would send a pre-recorded message through the loud speakers in the school and automatically generate a 911 call.
The approximate cost to have one button at all four schools is $29,000. Details about where the button would be located were not yet discussed.
ID Badge Entry System
Under this proposal, all external doors would be locked at all times and entry would be gained through an ID card that would be worn by all faculty members, on a lanyard. Readers would need to be installed at the entrances to schools.
To put this upgrade in at all four schools, with a panic button, would cost approximately $68,000.
Shatter-Proof Glass at Entry Ways
While no cost estimate was provided for this project, the committee expressed interest in installing shatter-proof glass at the main entrances to schools. An item that went along with this is the creation of "sallyports," which would essentially be another set of doors that create an extra barrier to the schools.
Classroom Door Locks
Under this proposal, the locks would be replaced on all classroom doors. They would remain locked at all times and have a universal key so that a teacher could access a secure classroom no matter where he or she was in a school.
Currently, many classrooms utilize a Velcro system that holds the door open during the day. If a teacher needs to close the door, he or she simply releases the Velcro.
The potential problem here, officials said, is that teachers unlock their doors in the morning and may not lock them again when they put the Velcro in place. This can create a false sense of security during an emergency, officials said, because a teacher could shut the door thinking it's locked when, in fact, it's not.
The approximate cost of this project is $97,000 ($150 per lock-set).
This plan calls for the installation of video cameras at schools — at entrances, in offices, hallways and around the perimeter of the buildings.
"It's a no-brainer that this has to happen immediately," Cuozzo said, noting that "it provides us with a huge advantage."
The police department had previously requested $125,000 in a short-term bond to fund the technological upgrade that would support a video surveillance system, but it never made it to the board, Police Chief Robert J. Gagne said.
Gagne, who was going to pitch the need again at a meeting he was attending later that evening, said First Selectman Jim Zeoli has told him he supports the project.
"This system pays for itself in five years," he said. "It benefits every agency in town and we're going to push and push until it becomes a reality."
The approximate cost is $180,000.
Armed Security at Schools
Whether to have a dedicated School Resource Officer at each school or an armed security guard was also an option discussed.
Two Board of Education members, including Debora Marino, who along with Superintendent Lynn McMullin is a co-chair of the committee, said they absolutely support having an armed person, preferably an Orange Police officer, at schools.
Cuozzo said he is against having armed security guards at the schools. He would, however, be in support of an enhanced presence from Orange Police.
The problem is that the department is currently short staffed and hiring new officers takes time and money.
Hiring new officers "is going to be expensive and it's not going to happen over night," Gagne said, noting that it takes about a year before a newly hired police officer is placed on active duty.
Striking the Right Balance, Next Steps
In all of this, members of the committee were mindful of the students and teachers and the need to keep them safe without turning schools into prisons.
And while nothing is set in stone, there is a sense of urgency. The committee was forming sub-committees over the weekend to further discuss each plan outlined above. Those folks are to then report back to the full committee with their recommendations.
The goal is for the Ad-Hoc Committee to give a presentation to the Board of Finance at its meeting on Jan. 28.