At the Feb. 25 meeting of the Berlin Board of Education, the board discussed and voted upon several challenging issues, including hiring armed security for our schools (7-1 vote) and Open Choice for the upcoming school year (6-2 vote).
After much discussion and deliberation, the Board of Education decided to employ armed school security guards at all Berlin schools. This decision to arm the security staff was not made without many meetings, conversation and research into practices in other districts.
Last year, a town-wide safety forum was held giving citizens the opportunity to share concerns and opinions with the mayor, police chief, superintendent of schools, and Board of Education members.
Other Connecticut districts that are currently arming their security staff were consulted and a survey was sent to all parents. Of the 425 respondents, over 75 percent were in favor of armed security staff.
Board Member Tracy Sisti and Superintendent Brian Benigni met with each principal to hear their opinions and concerns regarding armed security in our schools. After much reflection, four out of five principals are in support of armed school security personnel with concealed firearms. The one principal that did not support armed security expressed that their decision might be different if the school did not already have an armed school resource officer.
The Board of Education has directed the superintendent to post and hire a safety, security and residency director who will be instrumental in hiring and supervising the school security staff.
The mayor has agreed to fund the security positions. Our intent is to have two security staff at Berlin High School, and one at each of the other schools; the office of the security director will be in one of the schools.
It is important to note that because the security staff will be armed, all prospective candidates must have previous experience as a municipal police officer or state trooper to be considered. Each security staff member will be required to pass a psychiatric exam and firearm safety recertification course annually in order to maintain their employment.
The Board of Education recognizes that the decision to introduce armed security into our schools is not supported by all members of the community, as only 425 surveys were returned, and among respondents, a small number did not support the idea. However, given the number of violent incidents in schools across the country, the consensus among board members was that taking this step is a measured, informed response.
In the same meeting, the board voted on the number of seats to offer for Open Choice in the 2019-20 school year. The Open Choice program is a long-standing initiative which allows Hartford students to attend suburban schools, and also allows students from the suburbs to attend Hartford Public Schools, all at no direct cost to the students’ families.
This program, in place since 1966, has the goal of improving academic achievement and reducing racial, ethnic and economic isolation and providing all children and their families a choice of high-quality educational programs.
In the Greater Hartford area, about 27 suburban school districts are active participants in the program, with slightly more than 2,000 Hartford students attending public schools in these towns. For the participating districts, the payoffs can be measured in several ways, including economic benefits to the towns and benefits to students.
The district receives significant financial support from the state for the Open Choice program. Since 2013, the state has agreed to pay $8,000 per student to districts wherein Open Choice seats make up at least 4 percent of the student population. In Berlin, this amount added more than $1 million dollars to the funding available for local education. This funding is used to pay teacher salaries and to purchase instructional materials used by all Berlin students. In addition to the $8,000, Hartford Public Schools reimburses Berlin Public Schools for costs associated with providing special services for Open Choice students.
Last year, the Board of Education authorized Superintendent Benigni to offer 67 additional seats to Open Choice students of which 51 seats were filled.
The superintendent’s proposal for the upcoming school year was to offer 14 seats, primarily at the kindergarten level. This number allows the district to maintain enrollment at plus-4 percent of the student population and to qualify for the higher rate of payment.
Mr. Benigni outlined a long-range plan to bring students in at the kindergarten or preschool level, allowing these students to be part of the Berlin Public Schools community from the beginning of their education.
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