Despite concerns about cost, school security measures are approved

New measures designed to improve safety and security in district schools have been signed off on by the Board of Education, but will need other town approvals as well.

A series of recommendations by Superintendent of Schools William McKersie were unanimously approved by the board at its Feb. 21 meeting. These measures, which include new security cameras, intercom upgrades, key card access, and shades and film for windows, are slated to cost $1.4 million and are being considered outside of the school budget that has already been submitted for approval. This means the expenditure will have to go through the appropriation approval process and a short time frame is in play in order for all of the measures to be put in place and equipment ordered.

The one change to the proposal was to remove, for the time being, $98,000 for what are known as bollards. These objects are placed in front of entrances, such as the Public Safety Complex, to keep vehicles from driving into them. Board members worried that not enough discussion had gone into that part of the proposal, and it was removed by a  4-3 margin, with one board member absent for the vote. It is expected to be brought up again at a future meeting for additional discussion.

In order to be considered by the Board of Estimate and Taxation’s (BET’s) Budget Committee at its March 12 meeting, paperwork for this expenditure needs to be submitted by March 4. That is not expected to be a problem, but it would have to be approved at the March 12 meeting in order for it to be considered by the full BET on March 18 and also be able to be submitted in time to the Representative Town Meeting (RTM) for its April 8 meeting. For that to happen, it has to be added to the call by March 15, making the Budget Committee meeting an imperative.

The recommendations came after a full review of the district’s policies and procedures for school safety and security in the wake of the Dec. 14 shootings in Newtown. First Selectman Peter Tesei and Chief of Police James Heavey, who attended last Thursday’s meeting, took part in that review along with district officials.

Greenwich PTA Council President Lisa Beth Savitz spoke in favor of the measure at the Feb. 21 board meeting, thanking everyone who had worked to evaluate district safety and security measures while keeping the PTAs informed of their efforts.

“Parenting is a delicate balancing act between enveloping a child in complete protection and allowing that same child to develop independently,” Ms. Savitz said. “Intellectually, we know that most of the risks we guard against are remote and resources might be better allocated. However, we simultaneously feel that no threat to our children is permissible and we would stop at nothing to assure their absolute safety if such a thing were possible. Finding the compromise point in which we can be comfortable is something we will struggle with as a council, a community, a state, and a nation for years to come. The proposal here is a good start.”

Ms. Savitz added that the council supported insuring students had their mental and physical health needs taken care of and encouraged more outreach like a recent Pupil Personnel Services and PTA Council Wellness Committee forum for parents with the district psychologist and guidance staff.

An objection to the proposal came from Greenwich parent Gaetane Francis, who noted that in the approximately 100,000 elementary schools in the United States, the Newtown shootings were the only “significant event” at any of them in more than a decade.

“It was a heart-wrenching, horrible event, but yet it was really an only event, and it’s very important to realize that in over a decade to have that kind of single event be the only one means that there’s about a one-in-a-million chance that an elementary school like this is going to be attacked,” Dr. Francis said. “While that may be a horrible event, do we really want to spend $1.5 million that is unlikely to make a difference to try and prevent something like that from happening?”

Dr. Francis said that it was “completely normal to feel this emotional void” from what happened in Newtown, but she wondered if “throwing money at it” would do any good and urged the board to consider other areas to spend the money to benefit students. Her remarks received applause from the audience, but she was the only public speaker on the issue.

Board Chairman Leslie Moriarty responded to Dr. Francis by saying that while some of the proposal was spurred by the events in Newtown, other parts of it are more general improvements to safety and security that are spurred by ongoing issues, like fears over custody battles involving parents of students or staff members. She said some areas, including the cameras, were needed upgrades of out-of-date equipment that would have been done anyway.

Some of her colleagues did share some of the reluctance over the price tag, though the end vote was unanimous.

“This is a lot of money,” board member Peter Sherr said. “As I said before, I can’t think of anything more important to spend money on than the safety of our kids in school, and I still believe that. It’s just troubling to spend a lot of money. … The hard part of this is that I’m just not smart enough to be able to evaluate this. I think in the end I will end up supporting it, but it’s really fast and it’s a lot of money. I wish we had more time to think about it.”

Mr. Sherr said the BET and RTM would have the chance to do more evaluation of the proposal. Board Vice Chairman Barbara O’Neil said she agreed with Ms. Moriarty that a lot of the parts of the proposal had to be done and would have been done anyway even before Newtown, but added, “I wish someone else was paying for it.”

Dr. McKersie said he understood the concerns about the cost, but while the proposal was made quickly, it was done with Mr. Tesei and Chief Heavey’s consultation and based on “thorough and well-grounded research.” Board member Adriana Ospina wondered if the board was rushing into the decision before statewide standards were set, but Chief Heavey said that these would be state standards and acting now would allow Greenwich to move quickly and order materials before other municipalities taking the same steps did.

Board member Jennifer Dayton said the board was taking questions about the cost to heart and there were opportunities for the town to pursue state reimbursement for security upgrades.

“I think it’s very important that the state pays as much as possible for these expenses because we all know the risk can’t be contained within the boundaries of any single town,” Ms. Dayton said. “It really is a state issue.”

BET member Sean Goldrick was also a skeptic of the proposal, specifically the security cameras. Mr. Goldrick wrote to board members about his concerns, and his note was cited at the meeting by Mr. Sherr as “raising interesting facts” about the 143 surveillance cameras already up at Greenwich High School.

The board’s approval does not end the discussion at its level. The proposal deals only with the facilities in the district and the review’s recommendations said three other areas should be addressed, staffing, training and procedures and practices. Ms. Moriarty said the staffing and procedures would be discussed at a later date. Some of those discussions will have to take place in executive session to keep police response plans from being revealed publicly.

 

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