The West Hartford School Board received a school safety and security update this week, which included an overview of the new in-flight lockout alert system at Conard High School.
By Ronni Newton
West Hartford Public Schools addresses safety through its curriculum, physical security measures in each building, training and relationships with the West Hartford Police Department and other agencies, officials said in a detailed presentation. at the Board of Education on Tuesday evening.
Acting Superintendent Andy Morrow said that due to the COVID-19 pandemic, police have not attended the annual safety and security update for the past few years, but this year the Deputy Chief Rob Riccobon joined Acting Deputy Superintendent of Administration Anne McKernan and Director of Security Eric Dency for the presentation. Morrow said the district’s approach is one of partnership, which includes a hard approach to physical security as well as a soft approach that includes training and partnerships.
McKernan said there is nothing the district takes more seriously than school safety.
“We take a multi-pronged approach that really starts with our work with our lessons,” she said, including the social and emotional learning program that focuses on self-awareness, self-mastery and communication between students and staff as well as their peers.
McKernan said the district was able to add staff trained in mental health counseling and support through available Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funds that were granted by the federal government. These additional positions include five elementary school counselors, three additional social workers, two middle school counselors, a student mental health coordinator, a trauma interventionist, and a home-school liaison. McKernan said the district has also expanded its contract with the Bridge Family Center to serve more students.
“This work is crucial and we find that our students have a great need to work with these professionals and get support from these agencies,” McKernan told the council.
The district uses a Proactive Risk Assessment Tool (PRAT) to respond to threats made to other people as well as to the school or community. The assessment is performed by a trained and certified behavioral specialist to determine the risk category, McKernan reported.
Morrow said PRAT is an important tool and “brings together the people we need to make sure we have the complete picture.”
Dency said West Hartford Public Schools partnered with the Sandy Hook Pledge several years ago, before the pandemic, to bring two programs to the district — both at no cost.
“Start with Hello” focuses on ending social isolation and emphasizes social inclusion. The other program, “Say Something,” includes lessons on empathy, seeking help, and identifying ethical issues and situations. “The feedback I’ve heard has all been positive,” Dency said.
Since 2018, the district has also been using an anonymous whistleblowing system available across multiple platforms, through computers and mobile apps, and accessible through a QR code provided on flyers and displayed in schools. The technology allows two-way communication and can also be linked directly to the police department depending on the nature of the alert.
Dency said there is redundancy so that when alerts are received they are immediately forwarded to multiple parties and the response depends on the nature of the alert. If a situation is deemed urgent, the police are immediately called to intervene.
Pupils, staff and caregivers are made aware of the anonymous whistleblowing tool at the start of each school year.
“We find out if people need help,” Morrow said. He noted that the system has proven useful and “has really become a trusted way for students to share concerns they have about a friend, about something they’ve seen online.”
Morrow told We-Ha.com that the tool is widely used and has 43 pages of alerts that have been issued since the system was implemented in 2018. Photos as well as videos can be shared through the system.
A new alert system, InformaCast, is being piloted this year at Conard High School and has already been tested and evaluated during an initial lockdown exercise this month, Dency said. It uses both audio and strobe visual alerts that are activated throughout the building, interfaces with the existing locking system and also calls 911.
Morrow previously noted that the combination of audio and visual alerts is important for hearing-impaired students, as well as ensuring a lockout call is delivered correctly to those who may be in a noisy environment like the gymnasium or cafeteria.
According to Dency, administrators and other key stakeholders are able to activate the InformaCast system remotely, and police can also use it to initiate a “securing the school” or a particular classroom, or a lockdown. if necessary. Teachers are also trained to use the system to request a lockdown, he told the council.
InformaCast, which is funded by state grants, will be expanded to other schools, Dency said.
The district also continued to improve physical security, building new entrances, adding security cameras and replacing windows and doors, Dency said. An airlock was installed at Norfeldt School this summer, where visitors enter but must wait to be visually identified by school staff before gaining access to the office and the rest of the building.
Most schools in the district have had entrances and offices reconfigured to add airlocks. There are three other schools where work has not yet been completed but where plans are underway.
Key card access is now in place at all school buildings using ID badges, and the West Hartford Police Department also has card access to all building doors that have been identified by blue stripes. While police don’t routinely monitor the school’s security system cameras, they can access them if needed, Dency said.
A district-wide all-hazards emergency operations plan is being updated, Dency said, in conjunction with the city’s police and fire departments. It must be submitted to the state’s Department of Homeland Security Emergency Management (DEMHS) by November 1.
“We’re trying to go above and beyond,” Dency said of the state-mandated training and exercises.
A full day of training with the police took place on August 30, coordinated by Riccobon, which involved all West Hartford public school security officers. They not only used the police department’s training room, but also received live active shooter training in the old St. Brigid’s School building at 100 Mayflower Street, with protocol updates that include lessons learned from the mass shooting in Uvalde, TX earlier this year. as well as training in bleeding control and tourniquet application.
Administrators and other facility leaders also received active shooter response training from Dency and representatives from the West Hartford Police Department.
All schools’ performance in mandatory safety drills is being evaluated and feedback with suggestions for improvement will continue to be provided, Dency said. He said that a vulnerability assessment is conducted in all schools.
According to Riccobon, the average police response time at one of the city’s schools is between 2.5 and 3 minutes.
“This whole community is based on relationships,” Riccobon told the Council, including strong police-district relationships. West Hartford was a pioneer in implementing an SRO program, and the police have been part of the schools since the 1970s, he said. He was personally “Officer Friendly” earlier in his career.
Riccobon said it was also important for parents to know and recognize what their children are doing.
Prior to the pandemic, a forum was held at King Philip Middle School on social media, which was well attended, Dency said. A similar event will take place during this academic year.
“It’s daily, everyday interactions,” McKernan said, of relationships between students and security guards, counselors and others. “And our vision for our graduate. … It’s certainly a multidisciplinary approach to securing our schools. She said the job will never be completely done and involves keeping tabs on those relationships.
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