The Israeli school safety model may not be exactly what Connecticut is looking for, but the Sandy Hook Commission heard Friday from some of Israel’s homeland security officials about one of the world’s most secure schools.
The commission was established by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy in January following the Dec. 14 murders in Newtown, when a gunman entered an elementary school and killed 20 first graders and six adults. Malloy charged the commission with making recommendations on gun violence, mental health, and school safety.
During a meeting held Friday in the Legislative Office Building, the task force held a Skype conference with officials from a group called The Israel Experience in Homeland Security. Although the Internet conference was frequently disrupted by technical problems, it was clear that the Israelis have a very different approach to school security and homeland security in general.
David Rubin, Israel’s former economic minister to North America, said the group had reviewed the findings of a similar commission established after the deadly shooting at Virginia Polytechnic Institute in 2007. He said they disagreed with the commission’s conclusion that, because the university is so large, there is no way to completely harden its perimeter.
“It’s just a question of resources and money. With appropriate resources and money you can build anything,” he said.
Dov Shiloah, a 30-year veteran of the Israeli Secret Intelligence Service, described the security infrastructure at the Weizmann Institute, which is a 250-acre graduate- and postgraduate-level school near Tel Aviv.
Shiloah described an extensive security system including a 5-mile long wall surrounded by lighting and camera systems. Shiloah said the wall’s gates are electronically controlled and use license plate recognition software. He said the school has about 70 armed security guards and patrols are conducted constantly.
“Security allows academic freedom. Security enhances and facilitates academic freedom against those who are coming to disturb or harm this freedom,” he said.
Shiloah listed a few groups from whom the security system aims to protect the school, including terrorists, burglars, and activists seeking to protest some of the institution’s research. He said the concept is based on a proactive approach and to prepare for any eventuality.
“The proactive will also be deterrence. Just like in our homes. If someone comes to burglar our home, if he knows that there’s a sophisticated alarm system maybe he’ll go to our neighbor who doesn’t have one,” he said.
Hamden Mayor Scott Jackson, the Sandy Hook Commission’s chairman, asked during the meeting whether the Weizmann Institute’s model would work in Connecticut based on the difference between day-to-day life in Israel and the U.S.
“Is this appropriate for us? Is this something that’s going to work for us?” he said.
Rubin said that virtually all schools in Israel have secure perimeter fences with guarded gates. He said that works for them and even helps prevent other types of issues, such as drug problems.
After the meeting, Jackson said some of the information presented by the Israeli officials was “a little bit jarring.” But he felt it was important for the commission to hear about one end of the school security spectrum.
“What we heard kind of immediately after [Dec. 14] was this kind of knee-jerk reaction. ‘We have got to do everything to secure our schools.’ So now, this is one of the most secure educational facilities in the world and I thought it was important to bring them in and talk to the panel and say ‘This is what it actually looks like if you’re going to make a facility completely secure,’” he said.
In drafting its recommendations, Jackson said the commission is seeking to strike a balance between hardening school facilities and maintaining schools’ traditional place as a community center in American towns.
When he created the task force, the governor did not give the Sandy Hook Commission a deadline to complete its work. The group already has issued interim recommendations and Jackson said he had initially been hoping to turn over a finalized set by the end of this year.
However, he said the commission is reaching a point where it’s difficult to continue working without a completed police report on the Sandy Hook massacre. Earlier this month the Chief State’s Attorney’s Office issued a statement estimating that it would issue a report this fall.
“I think we’re coming to the end of our ability to be productive. So fortunately the timelines seem to be converging,” Jackson said. “. . . We need to make sure we’ve wrapped our arms around the whole thing and we won’t have a sense of that until the report is issued.”