Putting an armed police officer in every school has been a common suggestion to make schools safer in the wake of the Newtown shooting. But South Windsor Police Chief Matt Reed told lawmakers Friday that school security was not the objective of the school resource officer program.
Reed, the legislative liaison for the Connecticut Police Chief’s Association, spoke at a legislative hearing held by a committee looking to make recommendations on school security to address the shooting.
He spoke highly of the school resource officer program, but he said it was not designed with school security in mind.
“The officer’s role is one of teacher, mentor, coach, and general resource for school staff, students, and parents. The goal of the program is to introduce police role models into the school community,” he said. “. . . The goal of the program was never intended to be school security, although that has certainly become a convenient advantage.”
But according to Danbury Mayor Mark Boughton, town leaders have been hearing from parents who have been clamoring for armed police officers assigned to every school.
During the committee meeting, Boughton got into a testy exchange with the subcommittee co-chairman Rep. Andrew Fleischmann regarding whether there is any evidence a single officer necessarily makes a school safer students and staff. Fleischmann seemed skeptical.
A school resource officer was stationed at Columbine High School in 1999 at the time of that school shooting but could not prevent the incident. Boughton said the officer was on a smoking break.
“He wasn’t in position when that incident occurred and later he went for a cup of coffee and when he came back he was in the parking lot or whatever,” Boughton said.
Fleischmann interrupted him:
“With all due respect Mr. Mayor, so that school resource officer like most, was a human being and so he takes breaks. All SROs that I’m aware of have occasional breaks,” he said, asking Boughton whether he had any data indicating they make schools safer.
Boughton said Fleischmann hadn’t let him finish what he was saying. He said he wasn’t arguing there was a security benefit to putting cops in schools.
“I’m telling you what the pressure is that we’re hearing from our residents and from our families and from our parents, who believe inherently that it’s better to have a cop in every building,” Boughton said. “You get to sit here and not hear that. We have to go every day and have someone in our office say ‘I want a cop in every building and why aren’t my kids important enough to deploy those resources.’”
However, during the public portion of the hearing several people brought the committee statistics indicating that stationing police officers in schools has a tendency to result in more school-based arrests, sometimes for minor infractions.
Lara Herscovitch, deputy director of the Connecticut Juvenile Justice Alliance, said students have been arrested for the sort of incidents that previously would result in a trip to the principal’s office.
“When schools turn to police officers to handle student discipline, these same misbehaviors end up referred to court as ‘disorderly conduct,’ ‘breach of peace’ and ‘assault,’” she said.
Herscovitch recommended that towns with school resource officers have memorandums of agreement that student discipline be handled by school administrators or teachers, with referrals to police officers in only the most serious cases.
Reed told the group there was no single easy solution to making schools safer. But he did have some specific suggestions.
Lawmakers should be looking to both “harden” schools, making it more difficult for an attacker to get in, and also to train school staff to deal with an incident, he said.
Reed recommended installing recorded video surveillance systems at schools to allow staff to see what is happening around the facility and to play back suspicious footage if necessary. He also recommended installing panic buttons throughout schools.
“Panic alarms placed throughout a facility can play a vital role in sending a first alert that something unusual is occurring. Such alarms can trigger an alert to school administrators and first responders,” he said.
Schools should have access control systems with a single point of entry to enable school administrators to screen all visitors, Reed said. If visitors are allowed into the building, there should be clear signs directing them to an officer where they can be signed in and given an identification badge.
Reed said that school staff should also be wearing identification badges.
“This allows students, other staff members, and visitors to know who belongs on the premises. Policy should provide direction that those without visitor or staff ID badges should be stopped, challenged, and directed to the sign-in location at that school,” he said.
The badges also help first responders in the event of a crisis, letting them know who should be there and who can provide important information, he said.
Whatever lawmakers ultimately recommend on school safety, more than one town official expressed concern about what it may cost municipalities. Boughton told the group that the state should keep the costs in mind.
“School security measures cannot be done on the cheap. It will require significant state financial administrative assistance. State officials should be keenly aware of this when considering improvements to our local schools,” he said.
Facing a $2.2 billion deficit over the next two years, the state will be hard pressed to help municipalities fund these types of security improvements. The question about whether there will be a dedicated pot of money to dole out is still up for discussion, according to Gov. Dannel P. Malloy.
“I don’t think we have reached conclusions about that, nor do I think the state will accept the entire obligation,” Malloy said after a state Bond Commission meeting. “If I can estimate the number of schools, we have about 1,200 schools,” and there will be some money spent on improving security at each of those schools over the next few years. However, many of the decisions will be made at the local level.
“These security decisions have to be subject to local involvement and practice,” Malloy said. “Some schools are better off than other schools. We had different design or architectural flourishes throughout the history and even the recent history in the state of Connecticut.”