School security under scrutiny, parents demand answers

Laura Neilson asks town officials for increased police presence in Stratford’s schools after last week’s Sandy Hook tragedy. (Photo by Ralph Petitti)

Stratford parents were vocal this morning, expressing their concerns about school security during a public forum with town officials at a near full Johnson House auditorium.

The forum, led by School Supt. Irene Cornish, was called in response to the shooting last Friday at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown and included Mayor John A. Harkins and Police Chief Patrick Ridenhour.

“None of us has ever dealt with something like this before and I’m not going to make any false promises and give you all a false sense of security,” Cornish said.

“It’s going to take the time it’s going to take,” she said in explaining how long a review of school security and lockdown procedures will take.

Faced with demands for a constant police presence in the schools, Cornish laid out the framework of a plan. She said there will be an increased police presence at the schools and said that the Stratford School District’s Crisis Manual is under review.

“The principals and I will be meeting tomorrow to review the manual, and the principals will be meeting with their staffs to review the lockdown procedures,” she said.

She emphasized a need to have lockdown drills more frequently in the schools and admitted that a more standardized entry procedure is needed district wide.

“We are currently working with the mayor’s office and the police department to address the issue of entry at our schools,” Cornish said. “At some schools, there is no guarantee that once someone is buzzed in that they will go to the main office. We need to standardize all these entry procedures. That needs to be addressed and we will address it tomorrow morning.”

Supt. of Schools, Irene Cornish, holds up the Stratford School District’s Crisis Manual. She says school security measures are under review.

She said that she expects each school to set up a school safety committee which will determine when lockdowns occur and when drills are performed.

According to Cornish, the mayor was preparing to send members of the Public Works Department to each school to check the effectiveness of interior and exterior door locks and she said the town will be investigating the implementation of a new e-mail based parent notification system in cases of emergency.

“Right now we have an emergency phone system to make emergency phone calls, but parents have to sign up for that and as of today, very few have,” she said. “In case of an emergency those parents would not receive a call.”

The e-mail notification system is something Cornish is hoping to set up in the coming days. She expects to update parents as to the new system later today or tomorrow and encourages parents to give their schools their e-mail addresses so they can be reached in case a crisis were to arise.

During the hour-long forum, numerous residents asked questions, offered suggestions and expressed mounting fears for their children’s safety.

“I don’t feel safe sending my child to school,” one parent said.

“What scares everyone is fear of the unknown,” another parent said when explaining that she doesn’t think everyone understands the security protocols that are in place. “We don’t know what we’re doing.”

One resident spoke at length about arming teachers with weapons of their own. He suggested devising a system similar to that used by the Federal Air Marshal Service, where a teacher or administrator would be trained by law enforcement and always be prepared to function as a second line of defense should other security measures fail.

Cornish dismissed the idea. “I don’t believe the answer to guns is more guns,” she said.

Mayor Harkins, Chief Ridenhour and Cornish all tried to reassure those in attendance that they would continue to meet with each other and with parents to better secure Stratford’s schools and minimize parents’ fears.

“Stratford has a caring, dedicated, committed group of teachers and administrators. We care deeply about the welfare and safety of your children and we have focused on that since day one,” Cornish said. “I can tell you we have people in these buildings who are dedicated to these children and just as staff members in Newtown gave their lives to protect children, we would do the same thing here.”

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