Efforts to strengthen school security are ongoing in Greenwich, but Superintendent of Schools William McKersie said last week that he hopes to give a more “definitive statement” about it in early February.
Dr. McKersie gave the update on the ongoing safety and security evaluation at the Board of Education’s Jan. 10 work session. This evaluation is happening as a direct result of the Dec. 14 shooting massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, which left six adults and 20 children dead. Dr. McKersie has stressed throughout the process that Greenwich’s public schools remain safe, but some parents have called for increased security, with some even suggesting armed guards be assigned to the schools, something he said Greenwich and other districts are going “very, very slow” on and would “hold off on as long as we can so we can understand the situation.”
Stamford recently added unarmed guards to its district, and town officials have expressed reluctance, if not outright opposition, to having armed guards in Greenwich.
Since the Dec. 14 shooting, Dr. McKersie said, the district has been and will remain in “constant contact and communication” with both First Selectman Peter Tesei and Chief of Police James Heavey. He said that the “safety and security of our students and staff are our highest priority.” He stressed that any changes that do happen will be in coordination with the selectmen and police and fire officials.
There has been an increased police presence in district schools in the aftermath of the shooting. Dr. McKersie said last week that it will continue for now before shifting into more random appearances to make sure the police presence is not occurring at easily detected and predictable times. He repeated that other measures have been taken that cannot be publicly disclosed because of potential safety concerns for schools and law enforcement.
One change that has been disclosed is that police officers will have entry cards to get into schools in cases of emergency, which they did not have before. In non-emergency situations, though, officers will continue to be buzzed into schools and check in with principals first before going around the building. Additionally, a Jan. 28 meeting between Dr. McKersie and district officials and principals and program coordinators to discuss other possible enhancements has been scheduled.
“We will continue to explore options for enhancing our safety and security procedures,” Dr. McKersie said, noting that district officials and board member Jennifer Dayton attended a statewide symposium on school security last week that he said validated Greenwich’s existing procedures as “best practices.” Additionally, lockdown drills have resumed, and Dr. McKersie said school officials have said they are satisfied with how those drills have gone.
Dr. McKersie said there will be improvement in areas where needed, as determined by the evaluation. The review is being done in conjunction with the Greenwich police and fire departments as well as principals and administrators throughout the district. The principals are also getting input from teachers, which will be brought to the central office.
“We have excellent safety procedures and protocols in place, and we are working to insure those protocols are even that much stronger, that much more vigilant and that much more stringent when necessary,” Dr. McKersie said. “The key going forward would be that the practices and procedures that we already have in place, which align with best practice, are followed, are known and, especially in the high school and middle school, are understood well by the students.”
Dr. McKersie said one area that he felt needs to be improved is communication from his office to the principals in cases of emergencies like in Newtown. While stating that there were “many ways in which district leadership did very, very well,” like finding employees who lived in Newtown quickly to let them know what was happening and keeping parents informed, Dr. McKersie said the district could do better in telling individual principals what to communicate to concerned parents. If the district had called together its “crisis team,” Dr. McKersie said, it could have been sharper in responding to the needs of the principals.
Dr. McKersie said there is ongoing communication with parents and with students, particularly at Greenwich High School, where there is already a monthly meeting attended by him, board member Adriana Ospina and student government.
“I was quite impressed and taken with how at our last meeting the students themselves brought up the security issue and they themselves brought up that there might need to be some changes they are willing to see in their freedom, if you will, if it means security,” Dr. McKersie said. “That doesn’t mean giving up on the open campus, but it does mean there is a great maturity at the high school at the leadership level to talk about what it means to be vigilant.”
Dr. McKersie said an example of this was the students’ willingness to give up having an open door off the main entranceway that has been used as a cut-through to avoid having to come through the student center and having to go all the way around. Dr. McKersie said the school would “work hard” to secure GHS’s five entry points.
But it wasn’t just security issues that have been discussed. Dr. McKersie attended a meeting of 15 superintendents recently and said several “guiding principles” emerged from that meeting, including the need for an increased focus on mental health, not just in schools but in the community. Dr. McKersie said another principle that emerged from that meeting involved working closely with town governments to combine resources on these issues.
Caution was also stressed during the discussion.
“Changes will be necessary, but we can’t leap to those changes,” Dr. McKersie said. “One of the superintendents expressed concern, and I know this is bad phrasing, about an arms race where if one district races to institute certain solutions at great expense, then the other districts in the area, that worry about their test scores, will now start worrying about how they staffed up their facilities to make them inaccessible to those that want to do harm. It’s planning. It’s being careful. It’s each of our communities doing what we know we can do and what we need to do.”
Board chairman Leslie Moriarty said she appreciated all of the efforts of Dr. McKersie and the district.
“This is something that’s important to the board,” Ms. Moriarty said. “It’s something that’s important to the public, parents and community members. We will continue to update at board meetings as frequently as we can and move forward quickly on implementing the changes that need to be made.”