Shed light on partnerships and physical security as key to safe schools in West Hartford – We-Ha

The West Hartford Board of Education received an update on school safety and security this week, which included an overview of the new closure alert system being piloted at Cunard High School.

Written by Ronnie Newton

West Hartford Public Schools addresses 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 that due to the COVID-19 pandemic, police have not attended the annual Safety and Security Update for the past few years, but this year Assistant President Rob Recobone joined Assistant Interim Superintendent of Administration Ann McKiernan and Director of Security Eric Densey for the presentation. Morrow said the district’s approach is a partnership, which includes a hard approach to physical security as well as a soft approach that includes training and partnerships.

There is nothing the district takes more seriously than school security, McKiernan said.

“We take a multi-pronged approach to this that really starts with our work with our lessons,” she said, including a social and emotional learning curriculum that focuses on self-awareness, self-control, and communication between students and staff as well as peers.

McKiernan said the district was able to add staff trained in counseling and mental health support thanks to ESSER (Emergency Relief for Elementary and Secondary Schools) funds that were awarded through the federal government. These additional positions include five elementary school counsellors, three additional social workers, two middle school counselors, student mental health coordinator, trauma interventionist, and home-to-school liaison officer. McKiernan said the district has also expanded its contract with the Bridge Family Center to serve more students.

The school district uses the Proactive Risk Assessment Tool (PRAT) to respond to threats to other individuals as well as the school or community. McKiernan reported that the assessment was completed by a trained and certified behavior specialist to determine the risk category.

Morrow said PRAT is an important tool, “and it brings together the people we need to ensure we get the full picture.”

Densey said West Hartford Public Schools partnered with Sandy Hook’s promise several years ago, before the pandemic, to offer two programs to the district — both at no cost.

“Start with Hello” focuses on ending social isolation, and emphasizes social inclusivity. The other program, Say Something, includes lessons in empathy, asking for help, and identifying ethical problems and situations. “All the comments I’ve heard have been positive,” Densey said.

Since 2018, the district has also been using an anonymous alert system that is available across multiple platforms, through computers and mobile apps, and can be accessed through a QR code that is provided on flyers and posted throughout the schools. The technology allows for two-way communication, and can also be linked directly to the police department depending on the nature of the alert.

Dency said there is a frequency with that when alerts are received they are sent instantly to multiple parties and the response depends on the nature of the alert. If the situation is determined to be urgent, the police are immediately brought to the situation.

Students, staff, and caregivers are educated about the Anonymous Alert Tool at the beginning of each school year.

“We’re figuring out if people need help,” Moreau said. He noted that the system has proven its worth and that it “really became a reliable way for students to share their concerns with a friend, about something they saw online.”

Morrow told that the tool is widely used, and has 43 pages of alerts made since the system was implemented in 2018. Pictures as well as videos can be shared through the system.

Board of Education meeting, September 20, 2022. Image credit: Ronnie Newton

Dency said a new alert system, InformaCast, is being trialled this year at Conard High School, and has already been tested and evaluated during initial shutdown drills this month. It uses both powerful visual audible and light-activated alerts throughout the building, interfaces with the existing shutdown system, as well as 911 calls.

Morrow previously noted that the combination of audio and visual alerts is important for hearing-impaired students, as well as to ensure that the shutdown invitation is properly sent to those who may be in a noisy environment such as the gym or cafeteria.

According to Dency, the InformaCast system can be activated remotely by officials and other key stakeholders, and police can also use it to initiate “school lockout” or a specific classroom, or shutdown if necessary. The teacher is also being trained to use the system to advocate for the closure, he said.

Densi said the InformaCast, which is funded through government grants, will be expanded to other schools.

Densey said the area continued to upgrade physical security as well, building new entrances, adding security cameras, and replacing windows and doors. A banner was installed at Norfeldt School this summer, where visitors enter but must wait to be visually identified by school staff before gaining access to the office and the rest of the building.

Most of the area’s schools have entrances and offices that have been remodeled to add slogans. There are three other schools where work is not yet complete but plans are under way.

Key card access is now available on all school buildings with identification badges, and the West Hartford Police Department also has access to all building doors marked with blue ribbons. Densey said that although the police do not routinely monitor the school’s security system cameras, they can access them if necessary.

Densey said the district-wide all-hazard emergency operations plan is under update, in collaboration with the city’s police and fire departments. It is due to be submitted to the state’s Emergency Department of Homeland Security (DEMHS) by November 1.

“We’re trying to go further,” Densey said of state-mandated drills and drills.

A full day of police training was held on August 30, coordinated by Recobone, in which all West Hartford Public Schools security guards participated. Not only did they use the police department’s training room, but they also received live shooting training at the former St Brigid School building at 100 Mayflower Street, with updates to protocols that include lessons learned from the Ovaldi, Texas, mass shooting, earlier this year. General training in bleeding control and tourniquet application.

Officials and other school leaders also received active shooting response training from Dency and representatives from the West Hartford Police Department.

Dency said that all schools’ performance is evaluated during mandatory safety drills and feedback will continue to be provided with suggestions for improvement. He said a vulnerability assessment is being conducted in all schools.

According to Rekobone, the average police response time for any of the city’s schools is between 2.5 and 3 minutes.

“This whole community depends on relationships,” Ricobon told the council, including strong ties between the police and the district. West Hartford has been a pioneer in implementing the SRO program, and police have been part of the schools since the 1970s, he said. He was personally a “friendly officer” earlier in his career.

It’s also important for parents to know and acknowledge what their children are doing, Ricobon said.

Dense said that before the outbreak, there was a forum at King Philip Middle School on social media, and quite a few attended. A similar event will be held sometime this school year.

“It’s day-to-day interactions, every day,” McKiernan said, the relationships between students, security guards, advisors, and others. “And our vision for our graduate. … It is definitely an interdisciplinary approach to securing our schools.” The work, she said, includes monitoring those relationships.

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