On Monday, GOOD Morning Wilton editor Heather Borden Herve sat down with Wilton School superintendent Dr. Kevin Smith, Police Chief John Lynch, and Maria Coleman, director of human resources and operations for the school district. The subject was school security:  addressing fears some students have, continued upgrades and initiatives, and what the district wants–and doesn’t want–the public to know.  

GOOD Morning Wilton:  I hate to jinx it, but it seems like it’s been an easy, calm start. Were there a lot of preparations that the district did, coming into the start of the school year?

Kevin Smith:  Folks work all through the summer and particularly our emergency operation teams at our schools keep a running punch list. First, on the top is safety and security, they work through their list, just in general, getting schools open. We have a tremendously competent staff, beginning at the custodial level and all the way through our principals. People are pretty focused on insuring that the schools are safe for all the kids who come.

GMW:  Over the last couple of summer breaks there were significant structural changes to the buildings–ID numbers on the windows, new window glass, new doors, new locks, etc. This year, whatever changes were done over the summer are much less visible to the public, but I assume improvements happened, perhaps inside the schools? To reassure the community, reassure parents, reassure the students too, have any changes been made?

Smith:  There’s been follow-up work. We had a punch list around correcting interior door locks–those doors that swing between two classrooms that needed key locks on both sides. That was on the list for some time that needed to be changed. That work was initiated this summer.

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We have been working for some months putting together a comprehensive plan to address video camera surveillance. Working with Maria [Coleman] and Chief Lynch and a number of others, the district submitted a sizable [federal] grant and hopefully we’ll hear.

GMW:  To increase the number of cameras both inside and outside the school?

Smith:  That and accessibility. It’s a full system that would be interactive. The proposal is comprehensive. We want to upgrade the back end as well. Right now, we have remote access to our cameras but it’s clunky. You have to dial in to separate servers using separate IP addresses, things like that. So, we’re trying to make the user experience much more effective and efficient for both the school personnel as well as emergency response personnel. 

My great hope is that we’ll receive this grant and get to expand our capacity to have video cameras in lots of places that they don’t exist now. 

GMW:  You also implemented a new background check screening for volunteers. Some parents are leery about giving information like social security numbers. What response have you gotten to the new screening?

Maria Coleman:  We’ve gotten some. Relative to the number of emails that this went out to we’ve gotten relatively few responses from parents. But naturally some people are concerned about having to give that information and about how it’s kept confidential. We do not actually keep this information. It’s all done through the BIB.com portal online, which is secure. I recognize in this day and age, no agency can guarantee with 100% certainty that anything is secure. However, I think they take as many safeguards as are out there in order to ensure that the information is kept private and confidential.

Smith:  I think for the most part parents recognize the value of something like this, that it’s really just another step that we’re taking to try to make our school system as safe as possible. It’s not that there is any one incident that occurred that led us to this point; it’s really just, again, trying to take all the steps we can to ensure that the people working with our kids are as safe as possible and that we can give all parents a reasonable amount of certainty about what the experience is going to be for their children. Whether it’s in the classroom, or at a school sponsored event, or at an after school activity that is led volunteers. We’re just trying to take all the steps we can to ensure that.

GMW:  One area that’s really hard to ensure safety is how accessible the schools are after school hours and before school hours. 

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Smith:  This is one of the questions that comes up the most. Recognizing that our facilities are community facilities, and yet we have an obligation to maintain security while students are in the building. It’s something we think a lot about. There aren’t any simple answers in terms of managing that tension.

At the high school we did make the change at the start of the school year to have Kim in the booth an hour earlier. So, that’s a step. Then, [WHS principal] Dr. O’Donnell has been working on a plan to secure the rest of the entryways, so we’re driving traffic through the front door, which is a change. Likewise, in the other buildings ensuring that doors are locked and people are using single points of access that are monitored to the best extent possible. That’s a step in the right direction.

After school, we’re working through. This is something on our to-do list, to get a better handle on who’s in the buildings in the afternoons. Then, what are the responsibilities of each of those organizations.

GMW:  We did a survey last spring of Wilton High School students about how safe they feel at school. In some of the answers that the kids gave is their recognition of how easy it is to get in and out of the building during the school day. They recognize that it’s pretty easy. Especially given the kind of pattern you see with a lot of the school shooting incidents–that it’s a student perpetrator.

Smith:  This is a small, relatively close-knit community and so, we absolutely beat the drum of, if you see something, say something. Every person in this community has an obligation to do that. To be aware, to pay attention and, to alert adults when something is off kilter, not right, or they have a suspicion. That’s really, really important. I think that the research bears out when that happens, that’s when catastrophes can be prevented.

GMW:  Are you seeing more discussion happen, whether it’s at the high school or any of the other schools, that the kids have increased either their expression of concern, for their own safety, or concern about another student? Are the kids more fluent in that kind of thing?

Smith:  I don’t know that we have a reasonable way to track change over time. I do know when reports are made, the adults follow through on that. So, it varies by degree, but a number of our staff are trained in threat assessment and that’s a tool we do use.

Last year we launched Gaggle software. Gaggle is the company we use that does both active and passive monitoring of our G Suite [Google] and those are initial automated alerts. Infractions can range from low level things like using curse words in the document. So, kids will now get an email back from the system saying, “Hey, not Okay.” Then, for more serious concerns there’s a protocol where a school official may get a phone call from a Gaggle representative saying, “You need to look at this.”

Later this week we’ll be rolling out to parents, and to the rest of the staff, that we’re launching an anonymous reporting app, Gaggle Speak Up. It’ll be another tool for the students and the community members to report concerns.

We’re equipping people with as many possibilities to do it safely. Now, we have to make sure that people are clear on the kind of information staff need in order to be responsive. 

GMW:  It’s anonymous. Is there a way to control for kids fooling around and saying, “Go look at this kid,” and there’s not really a problem over there?

Smith:  Like anything in this environment tools can be misused.

Hopefully the community–including all of our students–take the obligation of safety seriously. I think the overwhelming majority do and would use the tool appropriately. That people see it for what it is and they use it responsibly. It’s not a toy.

GMW:  Are there other things you are rolling out in the coming year, or that you want to tell people about?

Smith:  The research tells us, for school security, there are really two pieces. One is delay. So, if you have some kind of intruder, you want to have procedures that delay entry as much as possible. I think we do. I think we have good drills that we practice. The second piece of that is response time. You want to have police be able to respond as quickly as possible. I think on the communication front we’ve really, in this last year, made some significant changes where we have tools now where we can communicate immediately and directly to the PD. That aids that second piece of it tremendously.

Chief John Lynch:  Viability is critical. Just about every day I drive by the school and people are here. [School Resource Officer] Diane [MacLean] has the car parked at Middlebrook. I actually drove through the back lot of Cider Mill and I saw whoever was in charge of the students watching. That’s great.

If I did that five years ago, it would be like, “Why are the police here?” Now they’ve grown accustomed to working with us and comfortable with us.

We talk frequently, [school officials] meet as a committee with [Police Captain] Rob Cipolla, and the school resource officers.

Smith:  And [Deputy Fire Chief] Mark Amatrudo. We’re fortunate. It’s simply picking up the phone or sending a text.

Lynch:  The one issue many police departments and schools face is, how secure do you want to make the building? You can have metal detectors, you can make it a prison but the kids want to be flexible, so you weigh that. I think we’ve got the best approach to it.

GMW:  Police in Weston did a live school shooter drill before the first day of school. Do you do that?

Lynch:  Almost ever year we do some sort of active shooter training in one of the school buildings. Usually over the summer, when they’re not in. Then we train twice a year just to make sure we’re in sync with other departments, because we’re going to rely on outside departments. So we’re all trained the same way. We’re all well aware of it. We train.

Coleman:  Mark Amatrudo attended that drill and he serves on our district Emergency Operations Committee. We actually have our first meeting coming up. He comes in and points out lessons learned.

GMW:  Can you tell me more about the Emergency Operations Committee?

Coleman:  We have committees within each school and those are the Emergency Operations Committees. Those are led by an administrator, there are teacher leaders, there are other representatives from the school–mental health personnel, they may have a school nurse, they may have a custodian that reports.

Then those all feed into the district committee, which is comprised of the administrators from each building; myself; Kim Zemo, our Safe School Climate Coordinator; Mark Amatrudo (who’s also the Emergency Manager for the town); Captain Cipolla from the Police Department; and the Wilton Ambulance Corps. Wide representation from across the community.

We meet on a monthly basis to review our all hazards plan, to plan for drills, to engage in tabletop exercises, to report when people have attended drills in other communities or professional development around the state. It’s really an opportunity for us to look at what the needs are for each of the buildings, to address those needs, but also to ensure there’s consistency of approach and that we are implementing the plan and adjusting the plans as needed.

Lynch:  We’re actually training with the Fire Department, EMS and school personnel to put together a scenario, for let’s say one of the schools or whether it’s a nearby office; other areas that we are concerned with. We have that template and you can use that, but it’s about responding and working with what are the school’s needs? That’s where your committee comes in. We keep progressing.

Coleman:  There are other drills and tabletop exercises we participate in. We just did a drill in the spring, that Mark Amatrudo led, it was a response to a natural disaster. We had not just the school district, but all town agencies there to look at what the response would need to be and the resources we would need to pull together. The likelihood of something like that happening is probably greater than an active shooter.

It’s important not to over look those types of things.

Smith:  That’s important, it’s all hazards. When you look at the kind of training, there are guiding principals, but folks have to be ready for just about anything.

Lynch:  The progression of that group–it’s amazing from five years ago. We were just formulating a state plan.

Smith:  The kinds of training that these folks have participated in–FEMA training, management training; there’s a whole series of activities and experiences that have raised a level of understanding and sophistication. I feel very good about the work. And knowing in the climate of the country today, there are lots of people coming into schools and other places, feeling uncertain. These are necessary steps. I truly value the partnership.

Lynch:  With lockdown drills we’ve progressed in that as well. It used to be in students in a classroom; now it’s what do you do during lunch period.  These last two years we’ve been focusing on that, taking it to the next step. Throughout their school career, they respond. Its become almost–

Smith:  It’s routine.

Lynch:   Unfortunately, routine. At least they know how to respond.

Coleman:  We’ve also added unannounced drills. It used to be that the drills were announced. Now we have a combination of both announced and unannounced. Again, it’s try to prepare for every situation and when you announce something and people are ready for it, you don’t have the same response and you don’t have the same potential issues that arise as you do when they’re not expecting it. The purpose of all of the drills is so that they are actually prepared for anything and ready to respond.

It’s been an evolution for us as well. With what’s happened nearby and across the country, there is heightened anxiety for some kids just about coming to school and coming to places where there are lots of people. We try to strike a balance between having things that people can prepare for but also having a little bit more of an element of surprise for some of these drills so that we’re not causing students undue stress–but that we are helping them manage things that can be unexpected.

Lynch:  There’s also the town’s Security Task Force.

Smith:  This is another feature that differentiates this community from others, that they created this Selectmen’s task force, that’s been meeting now for four years since Sandy Hook. It’s comprised of a group of security experts from the range of all backgrounds. That’s been a good partnership too. Both Chief and I sit on that committee. As we’ve gone through needs they’ve been responsive.

Lynch:  One of the issues that came up there is people accessing school, not just the school but the school grounds. There’ve been some concerns about people using facilities. That’s one of the things the Security Task Force recognized and worked with the schools on. Now you’ll see some signs posted, alerting people that this is school property, and off-limits during school hours, that kind of thing.

It’s public awareness–schools during school hours are for school.