Following much debate and public response, Wilton’s Board of Education held a special meeting Thursday evening to vote on whether they would keep the newly-created Threat Assessment Coordinator (TAC) position in the FY ’15 school budget. The job description was added to the 2014-2015 plan earlier this year at the suggestion of the Wilton Security Task Force, with a salary of $85,000–and later put on the chopping block when the Board of Finance asked the BoE to trim $750,000 off of its total proposed $79.9 million budget.
The board considered an earlier suggestion from school administrators that existing school personnel take on added threat assessment coordination responsibilities–a so-called “hybrid TAC”–and last night held a lengthy discussion with the security experts and educators on the security task force. At the end of the discussion, the BoE voted 4-1 to keep the TAC as a full-time, newly created position, and found the budget cuts elsewhere.
BoE chair Bruce Likly acknowledged that all board members realized the need for a TAC, but given the budget reduction request from the BoF and hearing conflicting analysis from Dr. David Bernstein, the school security expert who consulted with both the security task force and the school district, the board faced a tough call.
BoE member Chris Stroup summed up the dilemma: “The task force, doing a lot of work with Dr. Bernstein, reaches a conclusion [for a full-time position]. Dr. Bernstein spends time with the administration, learns about the school system and the people, and they reach a different conclusion [of a hybrid position]. So we have two sets of experts and the debate is not over whether the services need to be provided–we all agree to that–it’s the question in the immediate term, whether it needs to be 400 hours a year or 1,500.”
Administrators estimated that the “hybrid” position, as shaped in consultation with Bernstein, would devote 10-20 percent of available time to TAC responsibilities.
The district’s financial officer, Ken Post, described what he called a “scaled-down” position rather than full-time person, “like an instructional leader stipend, about $15,700. It would be an add on to an existing job. It has to be somebody with the right skill sets. They don’t necessarily need to be certified as a forensic psychologist, and we put some money in the budget for Dr. Bernstein train this person and also have Dr. Bernstein as the resources if we need someone to come in to do a forensic evaluation.”
Post said Bernstein felt this was a “workable solution” because the district was “honoring the spirit of the original job description and the fact that we already had the training for students, staff, parents, … and the low risk of the district.”
Second selectman Hal Clark felt that such a hybrid position wouldn’t be enough. “I think that presents a challenge for somebody who doesn’t possess the skills that are needed, especially in a district that has 4600-4700 kids,” adding, “We would be very concerned if this person could not spend at least half of their time on this,” noting that the task force serves the entire town, including Our Lady of Fatima and other facilities.
Clark, who chairs the security task force, stressed the importance of the TAC role to the BoE: “Wilton has always taken a leadership position. I believe that with the recommendation of the second School Resource Officer, and the physical enhancements to all our facilities, and with the TAC, will be the leader in Fairfield County, in responding to a world in which we never wanted to deal. We [used to] talk about ‘safe schools’–which meant comforting, a place where someone can learn at their own speed and be supported. We never thought about the safety in terms of physical harm–maybe a fight, but that was about it. What a sad world we’ve come to, that safety has to take on a more life-threatening purview but it is where we are.”
Police Chief Michael Lombardo added, “The majority of the school violence cases, at least 75 percent the report comes back that they were bullied for many years. If you have someone with the overview of what’s going on throughout the district, and has the forensic knowledge to assess people, Wilton will be much better placed. In the world we live in, the education we provide is critical, but so obviously, with where we are today in this world, so is their safety. We owe that to everyone, we owe that to the students, to the faculty to the community.”
Roseann DeSimone, a counselor at the high school, whose specialty is mental health, said the position would be one requiring very unique, specific training and cautioned that it was unlikely anyone at currently working at the school would currently have that experience: “When you’re talking forensic psychology, you’re talking clinical, someone in a forensic facility, where there’s training, profiling. If you have a brain tumor, you have a surgeon and you have a neurosurgeon. Both can do surgery but you’ll go to that neurosurgeon because he has that expertise. We have a psychologist and a forensic psychologist, who are you going to go to here?”
She described an increased need among the student population. “The amount of stress, the amount of baggage that they bring into the classroom is phenomenal. I’ve been in this business a long time, and I haven’t seen the profile that I’m seeing now. We need to start tracking them from kindergarten, perhaps from preschool. This individual would be that person, to track the kids under the radar–they’re the ones that concern me. We don’t have the time to dig a little deeper,” adding, “If we’re going to do it as Wilton Public Schools, let’s do it right.”
Jory Higgins, a Middlebrook dean, acknowledged his own difficult spot of knowing that as an administrator, a budget cut had to be made–but as a school counselor, the need for such a mental health professional is high. “When we say it’s only 2-4 [incidents] a year, how many more were other children, who were not a threat to others but perhaps a threat to themselves? How much of our present staff deal with that in a triage method?”
Task force member Terrie Schwartz–whose background includes the FBI and the TSA–said that even if Wilton’s threat is considered “low risk” the random nature of violence could change that quickly, and someone with divided responsibilities might not be able to respond appropriately.
“If you’re going to rely on statistics based on what has happened, the statistics of 2-4 [events] could change tomorrow in such great number. You’ve seen it just the other day with the stabbing in Milford. It’s random events, you’re not sure what’s going to trigger people to that level of random, violent, bizarre behaviors. Unfortunately, the landscape that we are now living in is quite different than a couple years ago, or 10 years ago, or yesterday. All of a sudden you could start seeing things in fast progression. I don’t think that somebody who has myriad other things to do could keep up with the pace if the pace changed. There’s no way to predict that, but it certainly could [happen] here.”
Stroup, the lone dissenter on the Board vote, said he thought the hybrid position should be accepted, with quarterly review. BoE member Laura Schwemm initially agreed but eventually changed her mind to vote with the majority in supporting a full-time TAC.
Lory Rothstein was emphatic in her desire to have the position be a full-time one. “This is one topic I find it difficult to be objective. I have always been in favor of this position being a full-time job, I have never wavered. If anything, tonight’s discussion makes me more firmly planted in that. Either you do it or you don’t do it, and if you do it, you do it right. I can’t imagine anyone on our staff being able to do this job with their current responsibilities.”
Christine Finklestein agreed, saying she was persuaded by the evening’s testimony of the security experts and school faculty. She added that she found it unfair that the new school resource officer–a police officer–is being paid for out of the school budget as well.
Glenn Hemmerly wasn’t present at the special meeting and couldn’t vote, but he had a statement read into the record, saying he was troubled by Dr. Bernstein’s change in recommendation.
Likly had the board debate the possibility of bringing in a professional as a contract position rather than staff, but eventually decided that full time staff member was necessary.