WALLINGFORD – Bullet-resistant windows, school resource officers, and metal detectors were some of the school safety measures residents suggested during a community forum held on school safety and mental health Tuesday.
About 150 parents, teachers and residents packed the Town Hall auditorium Tuesday for the forum, which was organized by town and school officials in the wake of the school shooting in Florida last month. The forum allowed the public to speak and give suggestions for about 90 minutes on a wide range of school safety and mental health issues.
John Conte, a Sheehan High School teacher who has two children in the district, urged officials to add school resource officers to high schools, something the school board has discussed for several years.
Conte noted that when a high school has a large function, such as a dance, it is required to have an armed police officer on hand.
“But 180 days of the year – 1,000 kids in my building – there’s nothing. That doesn’t make sense,” Conte said. “For 180 days a year, our children are vulnerable to someone coming into our school and doing harm.”
Unlike other surrounding towns Wallingford does not have school resource officers or armed guards in its high schools. Police Chief William Wright said the department’s community police unit has a daily presence in the town’s 12 schools, however.
Conte said “a lot of damage can be done” in the roughly three or four minutes it takes police to respond to an active shooter.
“I’m asking the community to seriously think about funding a resource officer in both high schools,” Conte said. “...The gun debate is outside, we have to protect our kids now.”
The forum Tuesday was a joint meeting between the Town Council and Board of Education. A panel of representatives from the school district’s district-wide safety committee, including the superintendent, police chief, fire chief, youth and social services director and health department chief sanitarian, were on hand to answer questions from the public. Officials started the forum by talking about school safety measures and mental health resources already in place before allowing residents to ask questions. About 20 members of the public spoke at the forum over 90 minutes. Residents could also submit feedback to school officials electronically.
Resident Christina Tatta also spoke in favor of putting armed resource officers in schools, arguing “seconds matters” in an active shooter situation.
“God forbid somebody gets in there despite all of our best efforts, seconds matter,” Tatta said.
Tatta asked school officials whether they have considered adding resource officers or armed guards.
Superintendent of Schools Salvatore Menzo said the school board has requested school resource officers in its budget for the last three years.
“The board does have a desire to continue to pursue (resource officers),” Menzo said. “We’re hopeful that there might be some federal grants that might help us.”
School resource officers are armed or unarmed sworn officers responsible for providing security in schools. Unlike armed guards, resource officers are also responsible for fostering positive relationships with students by conduct programming and safety iniaitives.
The issue of arming teachers, something debated nationally of late, was also raised during the forum.
Resident Jared Liu asked Wright whether it’s “ever an asset (to police) to have someone in the building – faculty, staff, parent, whoever – with a gun in an active shooter situation.”
Wright said he’s “not a fan of guns on school property at all.”
“This is a touchy subject and I know it’s a national debate that’s going on right now. Personally, I’m not a fan of it…I don’t think that we need more guns on school property,” Wright said.
Wright’s response ellicted an applause from audience members.
Conte also disagreed with arming teachers because he didn’t want the “responsibility” of carrying a firearm.
John Cerreta, a teacher at Dag Hammarskjold Middle School, told school officials that teachers should receive training in how to handle an active shooter situation, an idea that received applause from some audience members.
“We need to have the (active shooter training), just like the police department and the fire department…We are the front line before the police department or the fire department get there, we need to be able to know what we to do.”
Menzo said teachers and faculty already receive several lockdown trainings for how to handle emergency situations. The school district’s goal is to start offering an active shooter training, called ALICE training, to teachers beginning next school year. The district is “in the final stages” of preparing a proposal for the Board of Education to review. The district began working to offer the training to teachers prior to the Parkland shooting, Menzo said.
Cerreta also raised the idea of making windows in the front of schools “bullet-resistant.”
“Our entries to the buildings should be bullet-resistant, as terrible as that sounds,” Cerreta said. “If we can’t do the rest of the building, at least the main entry ways to our building should have some bullet-resistant glass to be able to stop someone from shooting their way in.”
Adding metal detectors to school entries was also raised, however, Wright noted “it would take an incredible amount of staffing in the schools to manage that.”
“It’s incredibly consuming for resources,” Wright said.
The topic of student mental health was also tied into the school safety forum because “the two topics really do go together,” Menzo said.
Officials noted that social media can be a mental health detriment for many students.
Menzo said social media is “the most significant challenge that we face in our schools, not just with students.”
“It is a major issue and comes into play with depression and suicide issues,” said Craig Turner, director of youth and social services, “because kids are reading things, either about themselves that are untrue that are just horrible, or they believe that things are true for other people when they’re just not and it gives the impression that everyone is living a better life.”
Wright said police investigate a “tremendous amount of technology-based bullying.”
“Some of the things that are brought to our attention…are just vicious. It really is, it’s just vicious,” Wright said.
Turner said social media is “as dangerous, if not more dangerous to mental health, than substance abuse.
Menzo said the district has recently held educational programs encouraging students to think twice before sending a malicious message on social media. The school district also launched a campaign last year encouraging students to “choose kindness.”