NORWALK, Conn. — Security upgrades and collaborative efforts are making a difference at Norwalk Public Schools, according to Ryan Harold.
“We’ve, as a district, made some tremendous gains in securing and really solidifying how safe our schools are. In terms of safety and security, we have almost three dozen protocols and procedures and systems, which I can assure you is more than any other district in the country,” Harold said at Tuesday’s Board of Education meeting.
Harold, NPS Safety & Security Supervisor, has held the role less than a year. One “gain” parents can easily grasp is increased police presence at the schools, but Ryan’s list of improvements includes additional cameras, fencing repairs and more coordinated communication with the Norwalk Police Department.
Those are funded with the $600,000 in capital budget funds authorized this spring and while NPS was grateful, it had a list of wants that was “way more,” Assistant Superintendent of Business and Operations Sandra Faioes said. The district is seeking $1.3 million to continue improvements.
Of that, a $440,000 request to fund Mutual Link, a development that connects emergency responders’ communications with the school system, caught the Board of Education’s ear. Rather than waiting for the next capital budget cycle, the Board should request a special appropriation, Board of Education Chairman Colin Hosten said.
“I think it rises to that level of urgency, so we don’t want to wait,” he said.
The comments come in the wake of the mass shooting at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas.
“Clearly, they did not have all their connections together,” BoE member member Mary Ellen Flaherty-Ludwig observed.
“We’re learning from the you know, the mistakes or unfortunate circumstances of other communities to stay ahead of it to make sure it doesn’t happen here,” Harold said. “… But where we are now, we’re already far, far ahead of many, many school districts within this country, between, again, our primary, secondary and tertiary measures around school safety… I would guarantee that we have some of the most intricate protocols and procedures within the country.”
Cameras, door alarms
NPS is spending $180,000 of this year’s funds to increase the number of cameras at the high and middle schools, and improve door alarms, Faioes said.
Twenty cameras were installed in blind spots at Roton Middle School, Harold said. Norwalk High School was getting cameras installed Wednesday.
Software is increasing the cameras’ efficacy, moving them from being a reactive tool “into more active surveillance, to prevent things from happening,” he said.
The door alarms are a four-phase process, starting with battery-powered alarms at elementary schools and then the installation of Internet-connected alarms, with the battery-powered alarms remaining as back up systems.
They’re meant “not just to keep people out, but also to keep small people in and making sure that we are addressing what is happening when a door is opening. And we are not following that single point of entry that we stress in our safety guides,” Faioes said.
When a Wi-Fi alarm is tripped, a notification will go to security “then also through email and texts to designated members within that school community,” Harold said. “…After we do our elementary schools will move to our middle schools, and then ultimately our high schools.”
More SROS, security guards
NPS has added an additional security guard at each high school, bringing the total to eight each, and at every middle school, bringing the totals there to three each, Harold said. There’s also a “floater” to cover absences.
(NAOP) Norwalk Alternative Opportunity Program has a full time guard as does the SoNo incubator school at the Carver Center suspension site, he said.
Also, “the after-school programs (and) before-school programs do have emergency plans, they do do drills. So they do have outside of the security guard on staff, their staff does train emergency preparedness and so forth and how to deal with these situations,” Harold said.
Last year, there were three SROs (School Resource Officers) in the district, now there are five, he said.
“The feedback from our schools around the SROs has been incredible,” Harold said. “So we now have a full-time SRO at each one of the high schools, and then the other three SROs are split up between the remainder schools…. just those two extra bodies have really afforded them to focus on the preventative work, the primary prevention stuff, and the feedback from the schools has been nothing but positive and glowing.”
The district also has five full-time patrol officers. Every NPD officer has a master key fob to the school system so if there’s an emergency, they’ll be able to get into the buildings, according to Harold.
“It’s quite clear that the schools and our students are the priority of the police department. And I can honestly say that’s not always the case in other cities,” Harold said.
Safety committees, drills, plans
“We do have three levels of safety committees,” Harold said. “It really is all about collaboration, planning, designing and executing, you know, in a major emergency, the first five or 10 minutes is a school-based response. But then it becomes a city-wide, in some situations, a statewide emergency response.”
Last week, the executive safety committee met and members of the fire department, the police department, first responders and emergency management talked through that first 10 minutes, he said. “Then we trickle that (information) down to our safety committee, which is our site coordinators, and they execute at the school level.”
In addition, “The state requires us to have 10 emergency drills, we’ve increased that to 12. So within the first 60 days of the school year, we’ll have two evacuations and two lockdown drills,” Harold said. “…Teachers and staff have provided feedback to their site coordinators to make adjustments.”
NPS is moving away from surprise drills.
“Right now we’re communicating with families to try to try and take some of that emotional and mental stress and burden off of our children or families,” Harold said. “…we’re notifying families in advance on what to expect. We’re including what the protocol is. We’re including instructional videos on so that people are exposed and know what to expect in these new situations, even if it’s just a drill.”
School specific safety plans have expanded to include a community profile about the school, its location and a hazard analysis. A safety and security assessment includes 250 yes or no questions, touching on “the physical space to make sure that it’s in working order everything from broken doors in the bathroom to rubber pellets on a on a playground, but then also goes into the social emotional mental assessment.”
NPS is seeking another $350,000 for cameras, $700,000 for door alarms and $440,000 for Mutual Link, the “urgent need” Hosten feels qualifies for a special appropriation.
Communication is “the thing that kind of brings us all together,” Harold said.
“Within Mutual Link, they’d be able to digitize all of our frequencies and put them into one spot,” Harold said. “So we wouldn’t need to have this major overhaul of the radio frequencies and radio communication system. This digitizes it and does it for us…. This will connect the State Police, the local police and the school system onto the same frequencies, communicating in real time together.”
The police department gets the school district’s video feeds and has designated radios for an emergency, as well as floor plans, he said. “But this brings it all one in one place in live moments…It really brings all of our communications on one screen, on one frequency, to obviously make the response the most efficient way possible. And in these situations, communication is key. Time is key. So the faster that we can respond to communicate in real time, and those communications be accurate about what’s going on in the situation, ultimately, the better.”