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Gary Cole: For School Safety’s Sake

By Pam Johnson

Publication: Shore Publishing

Published January 21. 2013 4:00AM   Updated January 23. 2013 9:24AM
Photo by Pam Johnson/ The Sound
In order to create the safest school environment possible, Northford's Gary Cole says the answer lies in "vigilance, preparedness, and training." Since Dec. 14, this professional firefighter for the City of New Haven has introduced and administrated "North Branford Parents United" on Facebook, asked Town Council to create an Ad Hoc School Safety Committee, made a case to the Board of Education for a standard operating guideline school safety and security "playbook," and more.
Cole Fuels Community Conversation; Offers Expertise, Ideas

The shooting rampage at Sandy Hook Elementary School compelled Gary Cole to act so his kids-and every North Branford Public School student-can be in the safest environment possible.

"I didn't trust it enough in anybody's hands to protect my kids," says the Northford father of three and City of New Haven fire lieutenant.

This month, Gary established "North Branford Parents United" on Facebook. The page instantly struck a chord with community members eager for information and as a forum for news, ideas, updates, fears, and frustrations.

"I'm a conduit for them," says Gary, who often contacts Superintendent of Schools Scott Schoonmaker to share relevant input, queries, and comments and seek responses.

On Jan. 8, Gary called on the Town Council to create an Ad Hoc School Safety Committee of first responders, educators, town officials, and community members to be assisted by a professional school security company. On Jan. 17, he spoke to the Board of Education (BOE), making a case for implementing a safety and security "playbook" containing standard operating guidelines, such as training all employees to one standard.

"That day in Newtown, one of the two classrooms that were attacked and suffered the most loss of life had a substitute teacher who had not trained in the school's lockdown procedures?We'll never know if this would have changed the outcome?but it proves there has to be standard guidelines for all our schools, and train everyone to that standard," Gary told the BOE.

Gary and his wife Jennifer have three children in North Branford public schools (Emily, Aiden, and Riley).

"After Newtown, I felt compelled to find out what the plan was here in town, so I thought, 'Go to the source,'" says Gary, who also wanted to offer his expertise. "I started with this idea of fortifying the classrooms and creating the safest environment for them to get into and stay there.

"You can't stop evil," he continues. "You're not going to stop it, but you can prepare for it, and [reduce the number of] the lives taken."

Since Dec. 14, all town schools have had a police presence. The district will soon hire six new armed security guards (together with those already on duty) to patrol schools permanently. But, Gary says, "That doesn't close the case for me."

Noting armed security was in place at other tragic school shootings (Columbine High School in Colorado had armed guards and Virginia Tech had a campus police force), Gary says, "It's not the total answer. It can be used as a tool and a deterrent, but you can't rely on it."

The Fair Haven native and 15-year New Haven professional firefighter says he moved to Northford 10 years ago to raise his kids here, adding he loves this town.

However, Gary cautions, "This is such a small town; I can see that people living here, they feel safe-sometimes overly, to the point of [believing], 'Crime can't happen here.' I want to make people aware that bad people come to Northford. They don't only come to New Haven; they don't only come to Bridgeport. They go to Newtown. They go to Aurora, [Colorado]. The problem is complacency. The answer lies in preparedness, vigilance, and training."

Gary says he'll continue offering input to the town. He's also applied for the town's open Volunteer Emergency Services director position and was interviewed last week. Meanwhile, his Ad Hoc School Safety Committee is receiving serious consideration from the Town Council.

"I'm really strong on community involvement. We need to include independent thinkers. That's why I want to be on the ad hoc committee-that's when I'll feel comfortable. I want my voice to be heard and my [neighbors'] voices to be heard. There are a lot of people in town who have backgrounds that can help."