Correction, 12:30 p.m.: New locks on the way.
NORWALK, Conn. – The developing culture shift toward increased safety at Norwalk Public Schools – for which $2 million has been requested in the next Board of Education capital budget – was explained Thursday by Norwalk officials.
“School security, is, has been and will always be, a priority for people in Norwalk,” Mayor Harry Rilling said as he began a morning press conference that featured Norwalk Schools Superintendent Manny Rivera, Norwalk Police Chief Thomas Kulhawik and Norwalk Fire Chief Denis McCarthy. “We want people to feel secure that when they send their children to our schools that they’re in safe surroundings, and we’re doing everything we can to protect them every day.”
“As someone new to Norwalk, having come to the city seven months ago, to come here and witness the high level of organization and attention to school safety really was reassuring,” Rivera said. “This is really the best example of teamwork that I have seen in a community.”
McCarthy laid out the history of the school safety committee, which formed after the December 2012 slaughter of children at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown.
“Our job is not to deal with the very rare and tragic outcomes from school violence, although that was a big part of it. We wanted to make sure our efforts made school safer every day,” he said.
School officials initially requested and received $100,000 in funds from the city to address safety issues. The Common Council is in the process of approving an additional $500,000. Rivera has requested $2 million in the 2014-2015 capital budget.
Most of the planning has been done in secrecy, and officials are keeping to themselves most of what the money will be spent on. They say that to share that information would be to negate its purpose.
New locks will be installed, and doors have been numbered at all the schools so that first responders will know where they are going. Rivera said alarms are being updated by the beginning of the next school year. Some of the capital budget money will go to update intercoms if the request is approved, Norwalk Communications Director Brenda Williams said.
This is all in response to and in accordance with police assessments of the schools conducted by Lt. Marc Lepore and Lt. Brian Cunningham, McCarthy said.
Every school now has school emergency guides patterned after a “best practices” innovation from Colorado, the “I Love U Guys” foundation, he said. The guides are designed to teach life skills to children from kindergarten to high school.
New to the guide binders is medical emergency information. That includes instructions for caring for someone having an anxiety-induced asthma attack or suffering from a bee sting, McCarthy said.
Table top emergency exercises are planned, McCarthy said. There will a map in every police car outlining where to go to get into every school, he said.
Brien McMahon High School teacher Bob Killackey said schools are screening visitors more carefully. Everyone must sign in and out. Visitors are asked to give a cell phone number so they can be contacted if their whereabouts are uncertain.
Rivera said all of the work is paying off.
“I was out one day, made an unannounced visit to a school,” he said. “There they were ready for a lockdown. It was amazing to walk with the principal through that school and see all of the teachers, all the students properly in place, hiding. You didn’t even know where they were. It was really a terrific effort to know that what we say here, what we have here is actually being practiced out in the field.”
It’s about creating a culture of safety in the schools, he said.
“Children by and large know what unfortunately has happened in so many schools,” he said. “When I go and watch them they all take it very seriously. I think the good news is the training for our teachers — they are providing really age-appropriate instruction. They know how to work with students so that it’s not a sort of a living-in-fear situation. It’s really about being aware of their surroundings. If you see something you say something. You take action. I think that’s really important to safety being on people’s minds and not ignoring potential signs, even if it’s a classmate or whether it’s an adult that they may be seeing lurking around their school.
“That is the kind of culture shift we are looking at.”