When GOOD Morning Wilton heard about the Wilton Police Department participating in a day-long training session to learn more about working with special needs children and adults, we asked Parent Advisory Board member Rebecca LePage, who organized the program, to write about it. The training session took place last Friday, April 4.

The search for Avonte Oquendo was still making headlines on November 13, the date of our monthly Wilton Public Schools Parent Advisory Board meeting. The 14-year-old autistic boy had slipped out of his Long Island City school unnoticed and subsequently vanished. For many of us at the meeting, this was our worst nightmare. All of us have children with special needs of one kind or another, and many of our kids had become known as bolters or wanderers.  

As our meeting came to a close, there was some discussion on ways that we could keep our children safe, and how we could prevent the tragedy that was occurring in Long Island City from ever happening within our own Wilton community. As we collectively brainstormed, it was suggested that we initiate a discussion with the Police Department and solicit their help. I volunteered to reach out to Wilton’s youth officer, Rich Ross, and on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, Maggie Feltz and I headed to the police station to meet with him. 

Our meeting was incredibly productive.  Ofc. Ross was generous with his time and attention, and he thoughtfully addressed each and every one of our concerns. We spoke at length about measures parents could take to make sure they were prepared should their child wander off and go missing. We discussed the pros and cons of identifying bracelets, and the information they should display. We were given recommendations for keeping an active and current fact sheet with our children’s picture and vital statistics.

Then we veered a bit off topic. We talked about how incredibly stressful emergency situations are under the best of circumstances, and how exceedingly more difficult they become when dealing with special needs individuals. As these individuals often have communication disorders, sensory issues or behavioral challenges, their actions could easily be misinterpreted as being uncooperative or even intransigent during an emergency. We wondered aloud how the first responders would handle these individuals, especially if they weren’t aware of their special circumstances.  

It seemed it would be of great benefit to all involved, if the police officers could somehow be a bit more prepared when they were entering a situation where they might be dealing with people of various needs or abilities. And that is how we came up with the idea to allow parents to register their special needs children with the police department. If parents wish to do so, they will now be able to submit their child’s photograph, and provide information about their child’s diagnosis and special circumstances to the police department.  Although the logistics are not yet finalized, the information submitted by parents will be available to any first responder via the computer-aided dispatch (CAD) system during an emergency alert.  

As we ended our conversation, we mentioned that we knew several surrounding towns had participated in training sessions, during which first responders were taught how to handle special needs individuals with respect, sensitivity and awareness. Wilton first responders had never undergone such a training. We wondered if our police officers might be interested in doing so. We parted ways with plans to follow up on some of the topics we had discussed after the holidays.  

After the New Year, we got back in touch with Ofc. Ross as planned, and sent him links to several available first responder trainings. We had learned that such programs were all quite costly, and knowing how tight town budgets are, we offered to organize fund-raising efforts to pay for the cost of a training session should the police department chose to participate in one. However, the police officers took it upon themselves to have a professional come into the department to conduct such a training. This past Friday, April 4, 32 officers from the Wilton Police Department participated in the training session.

In order to show our appreciation for the efforts they were making on behalf of our children, the Parent Advisory Board offered to supply breakfast and lunch to the officers who were participating. But again, there was little for us to do. Upon learning what the police were doing, local merchants stepped up and volunteered to supply the refreshments. CT Coffee and Grill generously donated coffee and breakfast, and the Village Market kindly supplied lunch.  

As I stood in the police station on Friday morning with several other volunteers from the Parent Advisory Board, I was overcome with emotion realizing what an extraordinary community we live in. I am so grateful that I am raising my children in a town that cares so much about taking care of it’s most vulnerable citizens.  

Rebecca LePage is a Wilton parent and a pediatrician. The Parent Advisory Board for Special Services & 504 (PAB) is comprised of parents of children receiving special services in Wilton; PTA Special Education representatives; and administrators from Wilton’s five schools and Wilton Special Services. The PAB works to improve communication, education and trust among parents of children with special needs and the Wilton Public School staff and administration. They strive to help parents understand the special education process and communicate more effectively with their teachers and teams, and they also work to improve the level of understanding of children with special needs and the services they receive within Wilton’s schools and community.