Second Selectman Hal Clark heads up the Wilton Security Task Force. At last month’s meeting of the commission he made sure the topic of school security was front and center. The commission discussed some steps they hope to take in the short term with immediate improvements to school and town buildings, as well as in the long-term, with the Miller-Driscoll renovation project now in the works.
Topping the list: recommending two new personnel hires for the schools—a second School Resource Officer (a full-time police officer devoted to the school district; Wilton already has one) and a mental health professional to focus on kids at risk. This is in addition to some specific security upgrades and recommendations they’d like to see at Wilton schools and buildings.
Overall, Clark asserted that security concerns likely trump budget concerns, especially as the town begins to enter budget season. The Board of Finance has issued directives to both the Board of Selectmen and the Board of Education to stick to 1.75% budget increases as they begin to formulate the town finance projections for FY 2014-2015.
Nearing the Dec. 14 anniversary of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings, the topic of security and safety has taken on a different sense of reality for town officials.
“From a budgeting standpoint we have to start building the case. There’s no way the Board of Selectmen and the Board of Education can do what is necessary and come in at a 1.75% budget increase. We’re in a post-Newtown world. We’re going to have to educate people and put together solid numbers, and I think that’s the biggest challenge for this committee,” Clark said.
DETECT, DETER AND DEFEND
Clark and several of the commission members discussed being present at an earlier safety training presentation conducted on Election Day by the Board of Education for the teachers and administrators. The presentation was made by Dr. David S. Bernstein, a security expert and forensic psychiatrist who has been contracted to do security training for the Wilton school district. Clark called one statement made by Bernstein “extraordinary”:
“He found it most disturbing when he’s been asked why we have 20-22 mass shootings a year and that number had never changed, but now it has increased.”
Echoing the oft-repeated strategy of “detect, deter and defend,” Clark acknowledged the existing cooperation between the Wilton Police and the Board of Ed, referencing recommendations that Chief Michael Lombardo has already made to the schools. “We’re going to make sure we do what is necessary along those lines of the ‘defend’ part without being excessive. The hard part is going to be the ‘detect and deter part.’
Some of what the security task force as well as the schools are hoping to do is increase student support from multiple directions. The first approach to that effort is that the commission has voted to recommend the hiring of a second school resource officer (SRO). “That’s $100,000 to add another officer, when we’re in the kind of environment where we’ve gone out of our way not to have any head-count increases for years. That will not be an easy thing for the other selectmen to accept; nevertheless, that is the on-track recommendation of this group,” Clark said.
Optimally, that would enable one SRO to focus entirely on the High School, while the other could concentrate predominantly on Middlebrook middle school and the two elementary schools.
PROACTIVELY ADDRESSING THE PRESSURES
In addition to another SRO, the commission concluded that they would push for the creation of an additional new position, someone to act across both the high school and middle school in a capacity that would cover both security and psychological counseling. Theoretically, with more staff, more attention could be devoted to helping identify students most at risk for troubled behaviors, and the school could be more proactive in helping students before potential threat situations could develop (i.e. deter), or in identifying individuals who posed any kind of danger to themselves or the wider school population (detect).
The recommendation was made in consultation with Ann Paul, the director of special services for Wilton Public Schools, who the commission invited to discuss mental health and security issues faced by the school.
Paul told the task force that today’s students are facing extraordinary pressures, and the schools are seeing a significant impact on students’ mental health. They see kids dealing with everyday pressures and also an increasing number of children trying to cope with more serious mental health concerns, daily within the school environment.
“As psychologists and social workers in the district, we’ve certainly seen many more students suffering from depression and high levels of anxiety, really debilitating anxiety where it’s even hard to get through the day.” While she’s acknowledged these phenomena happen at younger levels, “it’s especially significant at the secondary level. Increasing numbers of kids hospitalized for psychiatric reasons, of course kids who are school avoidant. Our mental health staff who are help the kids, their resources are stretched very thin.”
Paul said that the mental health professionals at the schools are “very busy,” also helping children with lower levels of anxiety, depression and difficulty.
She was echoed by Jory Higgins, Middlebrook dean, and Roseann DeSimone, a member of the WHS mental health and crisis team, both members of the security task force.
“Unfortunately, from an educational standpoint, there are so many demands placed on schools nowadays. Not just unfunded mandates, but lots of ‘musts’ – supervision and evaluation, delivering supports for special ed, ensuring a safe environment for school. It’s hard to manage it all at once,” explained Higgins. “We talk about getting back to that proactive approach in working with kids, rather than a reactive approach, where something has to happen to work through a situation.”
Adding personnel has traditionally been driven by enrollment numbers, rather than need. The administrators working with Wilton’s students day in-day out acknowledged the high stress levels at which our town’s kids operate, and welcomed the thought of additional personnel to help address and help the students navigate it. They acknowledged the kind of preemptive effect that this could have in the area of ‘deterrence’ the commission was discussing.
“It’s hard to be a 13 year old kid right now, and know where you fit in, and that’s a kid who’s connected. It’s very hard in Wilton, if you’re not on the Honor Roll or the sports page, if you’re not acknowledged for being successful, where does that leave you to fit. I have to find a place to be something other than an also-ran. Those are pieces we have to tease out relative to the need and how complicated life can be as a teenager … and oh, by the way in a very high performing pre-university district—there’s a lot that’s expected of kids here,” Higgins said.
“Then you add the social piece of it and the home piece of it. There’s a lot of stuff going on, and that’s where the baggage is coming in. Putting those three elements together, this is what we’re dealing with,” DeSimone added.
Clark added that Wilton’s surface can sometimes be deceiving, with “the pressures in a high-performing town that Wilton has—financial, achievement, etc.”
He asked the educators where the greatest need was, in order to cost-effectively address the needs the schools have.
Paul responded with her take on a kind of “ideal” situation:
“If you look at the tasks that our school psychologists have, we would call them first responders. They have a number of obligations and responsibilities, other than crisis management. For children with special needs who have IEPs they do counseling. They have to do a significant number of evaluations—if a parent thinks a child has a disability—and that’s very time consuming, important work, at least half of their time. At any school there is one or two very pressing student issues, involving the school psychologist, helping a child get through a day.”
She continued: “So how do we make it work so we can do some proactive work in the schools, if our psychologists were able to do evaluations, if we had another mental health person—whether a psychologist or social work person—who could do more proactive work: go into classrooms, meeting with small groups of kids, meeting parents to inform them, to help educate about warning signs. We need to pull someone away from the other responsibilities that occupy so much time.”
DeSimone stressed that often at the high school, when the psychologist tries to schedule that same kind of proactive work, because crises situations arise too often, “sometimes she cannot do the proactive work because she’s doing the reactive stuff.”
Higgins reported that at Middlebrook often parental concerns about grades and performance will supersede more in-depth mental health concerns; because of the “everything counts now” approach some parents take before high school, the school will often get requests for student evaluations, stemming from what he said is “last minute panic and concern over why they’re not getting straight As.”
“The numbers are up every year for parent requests to have children evaluated, we’re obligated by the state to respond to those requests. It’s getting to the point where we need to raise the white flag, we need some help. The last couple years we’ve had to hire some temp people to help manage some of it, which is not a great way to do it.”
Practically speaking, there is traditionally push back regarding the number of administrators when it comes to budget time, however. Opponents of rising school budgets often cite the number of non-classroom personnel when they criticize the number asked for by the superintendent and BoE each year.
In light of that, Clark posed the question about how to write a job description and hire someone that would do something different than already exists?
“We would have to dedicate them to all the proactive things, and be part of minimizing bullying. All of this to me falls under school climate and school safety. When the climate is positive, supportive, non-judgmental, we see less bullying, less behaviors that are of concern. If that person were billed as facilitator of school climate activities, it would give some leeway to do some proactive pieces, to do some interventions with families, and we have a program for school climate and safety, to do it that way. The duties would be around school climate and safety. It would have to be credentialed, State of CT school psychologist or social worker, to have good individual and group clinical skills, the ability to assess risk. Someone who has those strong group, individual counseling, some teaching ability, some family work skills.”
Ken Post, director of finance and operations for the schools, estimated the target salary for the position to be around $100,000 in order to attract qualified candidates.
Clark reiterated that at this point the potential hires are just that—potential. The positions are ones he planned to recommend be part of the budget proposals, along with approximately $216,500 worth of recommended ‘hardware’ security upgrades. But with the emphasis on protecting Wilton’s students from a comprehensive approach, he was hopeful he’d find support, especially when talking about mental health.
“We’ve got to ‘detect’ – it’s the critical part of the security. Yes we’re going to come up with a list of ‘things to buy’ but we have a couple of critical hires that we have to make. We’ll have to take it to the town, and if the town decides they don’t want to do it, … but I can’t imagine, in this town, that happening.”
HIGH RISK GROUP: 21-AND-OVER
Clark also steered the conversation to another group of kids he said might “likely be threats”: “kids that go through the public school system, where they get the support, and if they go on to college, they have support there. And then at 21 or 22, particularly boys, they can get thrown out into this world and there is nothing to catch them, there is no facility in Wilton, and unless there’s something real serious and we can get social services involved, there isn’t really much support out there.”
Paul agreed, although she’s seen it from the vantage point of helping high-school students with troubled family situations. “Other than going to Kids in Crisis in Greenwich, which is quite a distance and sometimes 16 or 17 year olds don’t want to go there, if a friend doesn’t take them in, there’s no place. Those are very high-risk kids. Dr. Bernstein said they don’t have much to lose, and they’re in a very precarious position. That’s a group to me that’s very vulnerable.”
DeSimone said that Wilton’s Social Services Commission is exploring the development of a program targeting Wilton youth in their 20s. “They’re just out there, they don’t have a social connection with anyone. It’s in proposal form, there is something in the works, they have seen a need in the community for these young people who have come out of the schools, who have not connected to a college or whatever and are just floating. It’s a worrisome thing.”