Armed guards at Greenwich schools?

Nothing has been decided yet, but even the possibility of having armed guards at district elementary schools is raising some eyebrows.

In a letter sent out last Thursday, Superintendent of Schools William McKersie said that in the wake of the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Greenwich was beginning a “thoughtful review of all safety and security measures.” Dr. McKersie stressed that all of Greenwich’s public schools are considered “safe and secure” but that the review was ongoing in close coordination with First Selectman Peter Tesei and Chief of Police James Heavey to insure they remained so.

In this letter, Dr. McKersie said that increased security, especially in regard to the merits of armed security guards, is a possibility. While this step is far from assured, Dr. McKersie said “some parents” have advocated for it, and it is a potential option that is open for discussion.

Dr. McKersie called this a “complicated step that presents many pros and cons and may ultimately have minimal effects in the types of tragedies in Newtown.” Dr. McKersie also referred to the 1999 school shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado. At the time there was an armed guard at the school.

“Nevertheless, we will consider the option as we review our safety and security procedures relative to best practices in Connecticut and nationally,” Dr. McKersie said.

Discussion is expected to begin formally at tonight’s Board of Education work session at 7 in the Havemeyer Building.

Recently, unarmed guards have been assigned to Stamford’s public schools. Dr. McKersie said the Greenwich Police Department will “continue to provide an increased presence around all our schools for the next couple of weeks.” Police will be there both in uniform and in civilian clothes and in both marked and unmarked vehicles. Police patrols are also expected to continue to give “highest priority” to any and all school events.

The possibility of armed guards at the district’s schools immediately drew a response from Selectman Drew Marzullo, a first responder with Greenwich Emergency Medical Services. In a letter he sent to Dr. McKersie and Board of Education Chairman Leslie Moriarty, Mr. Marzullo said this would be a “needlessly reactionary response to a horrific crime” and there was no information to show it would make students any safer.

“Floating the idea of armed guards in Greenwich schools should be taken off the table now and should not be part of the discourse from the Sandy Hook tragedy,” Mr. Marzullo said in the letter. “This should not be a public policy debate.”

He asked, if the town went ahead with this, what would stop anyone from putting armed guards in private schools, day care centers and even the YWCA nursery.

“Children need to feel safer in school,” Mr. Marzullo wrote. “It is our job, as town government officials, to provide them with that security. However, introducing guns into their buildings, especially in the hands of non-law enforcement professionals, is essentially creating more opportunities for violence. What happens if there is a school shooting and the armed guard is in the ladies room? At lunch? On the other side of campus? While the chances of him or her preventing a mass shooting are infinitesimally slim, the odds of a child accidentally, or purposefully, accessing said guard’s weapon are much greater.”

And while this possibility has gotten a lot of attention, it is not the only thing being considered by the superintendent’s office. In his letter, as he has in public comments as well, Dr. McKersie stressed that the details of many of the emergency plans would not be shared for safety reasons but parents and the community would continue to be briefed. Among the other areas being looked at are a districtwide facilities inventory to review doors, windows and other points of entry, standardizing a “specific and common” entry procedure to schools and reviewing district crisis proposals and safety and security procedures.

Mr. Marzullo said if the review determined a need for additional security, it would be better done by trained law enforcement officers. He later added that he believes there are “creative ways” to increase security without compromising the learning environment while also keeping costs low, including having officers write daily reports while parked in front of a school to maintain a police presence. Mr. Marzullo said that he was “ready and willing” to commit to an examination of the current school safety policies and assist the Board of Education.

In an interview with the Post on Tuesday, Mr. Marzullo said he had received a positive response to his letter. But while he understood why people wanted to have this option on the table, he didn’t feel it deserved serious consideration and said it would only create a “false sense of security.”

“I don’t understand why we’re entertaining this,” Mr. Marzullo said.

First Selectman Peter Tesei, himself a Greenwich Public Schools parent, was cool to the idea when reached for comment by the Post this week. He said he wasn’t sure how serious an idea it even was but that it was important to receive feedback on it. Mr. Tesei stressed there was a big difference between having a private guard at a school and a trained police officer either in uniform or plain clothes. He said he remains a supporter of the student resource officer program at Greenwich High School, where Officer Carlos Franco has been assigned for years, but did not think it needed to be extended to all of the district’s schools.

Officer Franco also covers the three district middle schools, and because that’s a large assignment, Mr. Tesei did say he was open to looking at the feasibility of assigning another officer to the middle schools.

Ms. Moriarty said she personally was not in favor of armed guards either but was eager to have the discussion about school safety. She said the district would look at what other towns are doing and work closely with the Greenwich Police Department.

“Dr. McKersie’s letter was well done and showed an openness and willingness to having this discussion,” Ms. Moriarty said. “He made it clear that he wants a methodical and rational approach to school safety, and that’s what we want, too.”

State Rep. Fred Camillo (R-151st District) told the Post this week that he would support having armed guards at schools but “only if it’s the only option on the table.” Mr. Camillo said he would want to hear from law enforcement to hear if it was practical and effective, and added that he understands why people would be concerned about it.

“I think that you have to be able to have a reasonable discussion about all the options,” Mr. Camillo said. “I’m not sure if this is the best idea. That’s why we need to have this discussion. I know some people are reluctant, but if you ask some of the families at Sandy Hook if they would be willing to have a guard there who could respond to something like this if it meant they could see their kid again, I think they’re going to say yes. There may be other, better ways to do this, but we have to look at all the options.”


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