Jacqueline Wattles photo
U.S. Department of Education Secretary Arne Duncan (Jacqueline Wattles photo)

U.S. Department of Education Secretary Arne Duncan joined Gov. Dannel P.  Malloy and members of Connecticut’s congressional delegation at a town hall-style forum on Friday to discuss what he described as the difficult task between balancing school safety and creating an atmosphere of fear.

Duncan made those remarks Friday at the Hartford Classical Magnet School, where he was questioned by students on the subject of school safety in a post-Newtown world.

Duncan, who is the former CEO of Chicago Public Schools, said school safety was a difficult subject, but after the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School that left 20 children and six educators dead, it’s time to have the conversation.

“We can disagree or debate lots of things,” Duncan said. “But I would say there are two basic goals of safety that I think we can all agree on: we want a lot fewer young people being shot, and a lot fewer young people growing up in a climate of fear.”

To help improve school safety, Malloy announced that $5 million is being made immediately available to municipalities throughout the state through the Competitive Grant Program that was established as a part of the gun legislation signed into law in April. Schools can apply for grant money in order to be reimbursed for safety expenses such as installing ballistic glass or surveillance cameras. The money is to be awarded on a priority basis.

“Priority is given to schools that currently have no security infrastructure or schools within districts deemed priority,” said Scott Devicio, a spokesman for the Connecticut Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection.

According to Connecticut’s General Statutes, a school district is considered “priority” if it has one of the state’s highest populations or has a high rate of family assistance program use. Malloy said the $5 million grant, which is funded by government bonds, is the first of at least two more of equal value expected to be made available over the course of a year.

Duncan visited Classic Magnet School in Hartford for the discussion just hours after the U.S. Department of Education announced it would give $1.3 millionto the Newtown Public School District to fund mental health service costs incurred following the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School on Dec. 14.

The $1.3 million grant is from the federal School Emergency Response to Violence program, which was formed in 2001 to provide funding to school districts, colleges, and universities that have undergone “violent or traumatic events.” The money can be used by the district to recover money spent on mental health assessments and services, overtime for counselors and security officers, or the cost of operating off-site as the Sandy Hook children continue to attend class in the neighboring town of Monroe, Conn.

One Classical Magnet student told Malloy and Duncan at the forum that he supported the decision of Enfield and North Branford school boards to hire armed guards in reaction to the Newtown shooting and asked how the government planned to protect him.

Malloy pointed to the research and advisory committees that have been established, including the School Safety Infrastructure Committee and Sandy Hook Advisory Committee, that will provide recommendations for how to make schools safer. Malloy added that he planned to leave decision-making about armed guards to local schools.

“We are currently leaving that up to school districts to make those decisions,” Malloy said. “Many districts do provide forms of security, some districts don’t, but until we actually have a state standard we’re leaving that up to the local community.”

Duncan agreed that leaving decisions regarding safety measures on the local level was the most feasible and productive, but he added that during his stint as CEO of Chicago Public Schools — one of the most crime-prone districts in the nation — from 2001 to 2008, a few Chicago school principals used funds to add social workers, counselors, and after school programs instead of armed guards and saw “tremendous” reductions in violence.

“It’s not a one size fits all mentality here,” Duncan said. “But more armed guards, for me, is not always the right answer.”

Jacqueline Wattles photo
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy (Jacqueline Wattles photo)

Duncan said although decision-making is best done on the local level, it is the federal government’s responsibility to help secure resources. But getting action on those allocations is tough in a notoriously gridlocked Congress.

U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal agreed that the federal government should be providing assistance on school safety.

“Schools can’t be great learning environments unless they’re safe,” Blumenthal said. “[But] schools cannot be prisons. We still have a lot of work to do, and I hope that the federal government will help you [do] it.”

Blumenthal said that since the Newtown tragedy, Connecticut has been at the cutting edge in implementing school safety measures such as locks, alarms, and security cameras that aim to protect schools without militarizing them.

“Connecticut’s moving ahead,” he said. “Connecticut is making strides, not just in the strong gun violence measures it adopted in the legislature, but what is happening in schools across our state at the initiative of local authorities. It’s a grassroots effort and Washington can learn from it.”

The forum came just hours after the Connecticut Senate ended its debate on legislation that would allow retired police officers to work as armed guards at schools as long as they completed annual training. The bill cleared the Senate unanimously and is now on the House calendar, though not all the senators thought armed guards were the best school safety measure.

“It is certainly my hope that there won’t be too many communities that take advantage of this,” Sen. Andrea Stillman, co-chairwoman of the Education Committee, said Thursday.