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Facing limits of school security changes

Published February 21. 2013 4:00AM

Cities and towns considering elaborate infrastructure changes aimed at improving school security in the wake of the Sandy Hook killings should pause and listen to what a leading school architect told the governor's Sandy Hook Advisory Commission at a hearing the other day.

"We can mitigate risk, we can delay risk, we can control risk but there is really nothing we can do to guarantee a risk-free environment," said James LaPosta Jr., the chief architectural officer with JCJ Architecture in Hartford.

Mr. LaPosta also cautioned that in concentrating on expensive and perhaps unwarranted school construction, communities "run the risk of responding to the last event and not anticipating the next." This is a warning legislators bent on mandates might consider as well.

School security hasn't been ignored in Connecticut. Since 2007, the state has required schools to conduct crisis response drills every three months, using a format that includes lockdowns and the evacuation of students, according to a report by the Office of Legislative Research.

State law requires entrances of newly constructed schools or older buildings undergoing renovation to include such elements as security cameras, keypad entry systems, buzzers and wiring for alarms.

The state pays for a portion of security infrastructure, based on a community's perceived need. In the larger cities, where gun issues have been more prevalent in the past, the state pays almost the entire costs of cameras, buzzers and classroom locks, but upkeep is a local expense.

To its credit, the school security subcommittee of the Bipartisan Task Force on Gun Violence Prevention and Children's Safety appears to recognize the limits of infrastructure security. In a report released Tuesday, it recommends that the cost of reasonable additional safety measures be eligible for state reimbursements for new construction or renovation projects at all schools - such as bullet-proof entry doors, emergency response buttons, and the ability to electronically lockdown classroom doors. But the panel, thankfully, did not call for retrofitting every school to try to turn it into an impenetrable fortress.

Most school safety experts consulted by government officials and the media since the Newtown massacre have said it is most important for schools to have in place the means of instantly detecting intruders and getting classroom doors locked. Staff and student reaction during what Michael Dorn calls "the window of life," the first 30 seconds after an intruder is seen, can be crucial. Mr. Dorn has conducted safety assessments for school systems throughout the world.

To try to assure schools make the best response quickly, the panel recommends that school districts be required to undergo a safety assessment, update their emergency planning and relfect these changes in their crisis drills.

The next murderous event can, of course, be at a school or, like those in the recent past, at a theater, a shopping mall, a house of worship, a heavily guarded military installation or, as in Connecticut, at a government-run lottery office or at the warehouse of a beer distributor.

That is why improving the detection and treatment of mental illness and keeping guns out of the hands of those who would use them to kill should be the priorities.

Unfortunately, on the mental health issue the subcommittee came up short. It recognized that school and societal security could benefit from having more school counselors and mental health professionals available to identify and work with troubled young people. But because of the state's fiscal troubles, it stopped short of recommending the state find the money to pay for it. Given what Connecticut has been through, that kind of investment must be a priority.

We await the recommendations of panels looking into gun control issues.

Most appropriately, the subcommittee rejected the NRA's proposal of an armed guard in every school.

Gregory Thomas, the former chief of the New York Police Department's School Safety Division, told the online Connecticut Mirror that a school would need three guards, two every day and one substitute.

That's not reasonable and, as Gov. Malloy aptly said in his State of the State Address, "Security should not mean a guard posted outside every classroom. That is not who we are in Connecticut and it is not who we will allow ourselves to become."

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