The West Hartford Board of Education received an update on school safety and security this week, which included an overview of the new lockdown alert system being piloted at Conard High School.
By Ronni Newton
West Hartford Public Schools approaches safety through its curriculum, physical security measures in each building, training, and relationships with the West Hartford Police Department and other agencies, officials said in a detailed presentation to the Board of Education Tuesday night.
Interim Superintendent Andy Morrow said due to the COVID-19 pandemic, police had not attended the annual safety and security update for the past few years, but this year Assistant Chief Rob Riccobon joined Interim Assistant Superintendent of Administration Anne McKernan and Director of Security Eric Dency for the presentation. Morrow said the district’s approach is a partnership, that includes a hard approach to physical security as well as a soft approach that includes training and partnerships.
McKernan said there is nothing the district takes more seriously than school security.
“We take a multipronged approach to this which really starts with our work with our lessons,” she said, including the Social and Emotional Learning curriculum which focuses on self-awareness, self-control, and communication between students and staff as well as their peers.
McKernan said the district has been able to add staff trained in counseling and mental health support thanks to available ESSER (Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief) funds that were awarded through the federal government. Those additional positions include five elementary school counselors, three additional social workers, two middle school counselors, a student mental health coordinator, a trauma interventionist, and a home- to-school liaison. McKernan said the district has also expanded its contract with the Bridge Family Center to serve more students.
“That work is crucial and we find great need for our students to work with these professionals and get the support of these agencies,” McKernan told the Board.
The district utilizes a proactive risk assessment tool (PRAT) to respond to threats made to other individuals as well as the school or the community. The assessment is completed by a trained and certified behavior specialist to determine the category of risk, McKernan reported.
Morrow said PRAT is an important tool, and “brings together the people that we need to ensure we have the complete picture.”
Dency said West Hartford Public Schools partnered with the Sandy Hook Promise several years ago, prior to the pandemic, to bring two programs to the district – both at no cost.
“Start with Hello” is focused on ending social isolation, and emphasizes being socially inclusive. The other program, “Say Something,” includes lessons on empathy, seeking help, and identifying ethical problems and situations. “The feedback I’ve heard has all been positive,” Dency said.
Since 2018, the district has also been using an anonymous alert system that is available through multiple platforms, through computers and mobile applications, and can be accessed through a QR code that is provided on flyers and posted around the schools. The technology allows for two-way communication, and can also tie in directly to the police department depending on the nature of the alert.
Dency said there is redundancy so that when alerts are received they are immediately transmitted to multiple parties and the response depends on the nature of the alert. If a situation is determined to be urgent, the police are immediately brought into the situation.
Students, staff, and caregivers are educated about the anonymous alert tool at the start of each school year.
“We’re finding out if people need help,” Morrow said. He noted that the system has proven to be valuable and “really become a trusted way for students to share concern that they have for a friend, for something they saw online.”
Morrow told We-Ha.com that the tool is widely used, and he has 43 pages of alerts that have been made since the system was implemented in 2018. Photos as well as videos are able to be shared through the system.
A new alert system, InformaCast, is being piloted this year at Conard High School and was already tested and evaluated during an initial lockdown drill this month, Dency said. It uses both audio and strobe light visual alerts that are activated throughout the building, interfaces with the existing lockdown system, and also calls 911.
Morrow previously noted that the combination of audio and visual alerts is important for students who are hard of hearing, as well as to ensure that a call for lockdown is properly transmitted to those who may be in a noisy environment like the gym or cafeteria.
According to Dency, administrators and other key stakeholders are able to activate the InformaCast system remotely, and police can also use it to initiate a “secure the school” or a particular classroom, or a lockdown if necessary. Teacher are also being trained to use the system to call for a lockdown, he told the Board.
InformaCast, which is funded through state grants, will be expanded to other schools, Dency said.
The district has continued to upgrade physical security as well, building new entryways, adding security cameras, and replacing windows and doors, Dency said. A mantrap was installed at Norfeldt School this summer, where visitors enter but must wait to be visually identified by school staff before receiving access to the office and the remainder of the building.
Most of the district’s schools have had entryways and offices reconfigured to add mantraps. There are three more schools where the work has not yet been completed but plans are in progress.
Key card access is now in place in all school buildings using identification badges, and the West Hartford Police Department also has card access to all building doors that have been identified with blue strips. While police do not routinely monitor the school security system cameras, they can access them if needed, Dency said.
A district-wide All Hazard Emergency Operations Plan is in the process of being updated, Dency said, in collaboration with the town’s police and fire departments. It is due to be submitted to the state’s Department of Emergency Management Homeland Security (DEMHS) by Nov. 1.
“We try to go above and beyond,” Dency said regarding state-mandated training and drills.
A full day of training with police was held on Aug. 30, coordinated by Riccobon, that involved all West Hartford Public Schools security guards. They utilized not only the police department’s training room, but also received live active shooter training at the former St. Brigid School building at 100 Mayflower Street, with updates to protocols that include lessons learned from the mass shooting in Uvalde, TX, earlier this year as well as training in bleed control and tourniquet application.
Administrators and other school leaders have also also received active shooter response training from Dency and representatives from the West Hartford Police Department.
The performance of all schools during mandated safety drills is evaluated and feedback with suggestions for improvement will continue to be provided, Dency said. He said a vulnerability assessment is conducted at all schools.
According to Riccobon, the average police response time to any of the town’s schools is between 2.5 and 3 minutes.
“This entire community is based on relationships,” Riccobon told the Board, including strong relationships between the police and the district. West Hartford was a pioneer in implementing an SRO program, and police have been part of the schools since the 1970s, he said. He was personally “Officer Friendly” earlier in his career.
Riccobon said it’s also important for parents to know, and acknowledge, what their children are doing.
Prior to the pandemic there was a forum held at King Philip Middle School regarding social media, that was very well attended, Dency said. A similar event will be held sometime this academic year.
“It is daily interactions, every day,” McKernan said, relationships between students and security guards, counselors, and others. “And our vision for our graduate. … It certainly is a multi-disciplinary approach to secure our schools.” She said the work will never be completely done, and involves keeping an eye on those relationships.
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