New police officer for schools gains momentum as security evaluation continues

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week's Board of Education work session. — Ken Borsuk photo

Superintendent of Schools William McKersie holds up a copy of the district’s emergency plan at an earlier meeting. An evaluation of the district’s safety and security measures continues. — Ken Borsuk photo

The further the discussion goes, the more the idea of adding armed security guards to the Greenwich Public Schools fades to the background.

In an update on the ongoing evaluation of school safety and security procedures in the wake of the Dec. 14 mass shooting in Newtown, Superintendent of Schools William McKersie said he consulted with Chief of Police James Heavey and First Selectman Peter Tesei and they were in agreement that it was not necessary. One change that might happen, though, is the addition of a second school resource officer (SRO) who would be assigned to cover the district’s three middle schools as well as provide extra help at Greenwich High School if needed.

Mr. Tesei had previously brought this up as an idea he supported, noting the success of the SRO assignment at GHS, where Officer Carlos Franco has been soundly praised for his ability to respond to incidents as well as to provide an educational purpose and serve as a positive example of police to teenagers. If a second SRO is added, Dr. McKersie said, it would ultimately be a Greenwich Police Department decision that would be made in coordination with the Board of Education.

“That would provide us a full 180 days of coverage from the school resource officer, and if this plan continues it would give us flexibility with Officer Franco,” Dr. McKersie said. “If you’ve come to know the work of Officer Franco over the last five years, it’s, yes, policing, but there’s also education and developing relationships. We can point to this and understand it now. It’s developing those relationships with students most at risk of acting out, and the design would be for us at the middle school level to develop those same relationships with students most likely at risk there, too. It’s done in conjunction with the counselors and done in conjunction with the social workers and done in conjunction with the psychologists and the assistant principals and the principals. That one addition will begin to provide us continuity of attention and support.”

Further discussion on this as well as Board of Education input is expected at the Feb. 21 meeting. Dr. McKersie said “parent voice was very, very important” on this but nothing would be done based on polls of groups, but rather what is best practice and in consultation with Chief Heavey and Mr. Tesei and what meets board approval.

Some parents, according to Dr. McKersie, have called for the addition of armed guards at the schools, but he said unarmed security worked well at GHS because the guards knew and understood the school community. Dr. McKersie called their performance “excellent.” Dr. McKersie added that under the town’s existing community policing model that Chief Heavey has in place, each school already has an assigned detective that has rarely been used. Dr. McKersie said in the future the schools would draw on this resource more and begin “a real relationship.”

“In place of having an armed police officer there, that school knows it has a detective who can come to know and understand that school in the classic community policing model,” Dr. McKersie said. “Going forward we want that to be a real and definite piece.”

He added that schools with armed guards have still had shooting incidents, so it is not an automatic deterrent. Having an armed guard and not making any other changes would not be effective, Dr. McKersie said, based on police determination, because the guard could be in one section of a building when an incident took place on the other side, leaving the guard unable to properly respond.

Dr. McKersie said that the expert findings on school security show that you have to “harden” a school’s exterior to make it “very, very difficult for someone who wants to do harm” to get into the school building. If they get inside, the next step is to “make the building seem empty so you don’t give them anything to do.” In order to do that, Greenwich can upgrade its intercoms and have a “master key” system where a teacher with key access would be able to lock a door in a lockdown situation but not be able to open it. He said this would be particularly important in a building like GHS with its multiple houses. This means replacing internal and external locks,. Other suggstions include having monitoring cameras at all sites in the district.

“There’s been some questions about what difference that would make, but even if that camera did not immediately monitor something, it allows the Greenwich Police Department and others to understand a situation if it becomes serious,” Dr. McKersie said. He brought up a recent example of an upset parent trying to gain access to a school and said the cameras would allow for incidents like that to be dealt with peacefully and simply.

There were also suggestions of card access for emergency services personnel to school buildings, shatterproof windows, changed access that doesn’t allow people to park too close, and even “panic buttons” in school buildings that would send emergency signals to the police for instantaneous response. Dr. McKersie said no decisions have been made yet, but these are all options being considered to both harden the exterior and then make it “impossible” for people looking to do harm to be able to find anyone.

Dr. McKersie spoke about this at the Board of Education’s Jan. 24 meeting at Glenville School and noted that the review has so far determined that radical changes to protect students will not be necessary.

“Greenwich is very much within reach of having schools that meet the best practices for safety and security,” Dr. McKersie said.

However, he acknowledged that improvements can and will be made and they will require “significant investment.” As the budget season begins and the district has already had to cut its operating and capital budgets to meet guidelines from the Board of Estimate and Taxation (BET), Dr. McKersie emphasized that the aim is to handle any new investment separately from the current school budget proposals. This may require an interim appropriation from the town to pay for improvements, but that is not clear yet.

Dr. McKersie said the district is working closely with Mr. Tesei on this and there have already been “preliminary conversations” with the BET.

“This is an important investment and it will be significant, but we’re going to make sure it does not tap into the operational proposal or tap into the existing capital proposal,” Dr. McKersie said.

Not all of the changes will be publicly disclosed, since they involve police tactics and response. However, some of the changes will require Board of Education approval. That will be discussed at the Feb. 21 meeting at Julian Curtiss School.

 

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