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Rilling on School Security: "We're Hardening the Target"

With age-appropriate education for a variety of emergencies, Norwalk school children acquire life skills they will take with them to college and into the workplace.

Flanked by School Superintendent Manuel Rivera and Police Chief Kulhawik, Fire Chief McCarthy holds up one of the Emergency Response Guides. CrediT: Leslie Yager
Flanked by School Superintendent Manuel Rivera and Police Chief Kulhawik, Fire Chief McCarthy holds up one of the Emergency Response Guides. CrediT: Leslie Yager
At a press briefing on school security at Norwalk City Hall on Thursday, the phrase "hardening the target" was used more than once to describe the effort.

Since the shooting at Sandy Hook School, Norwalk's leaders have taken a close look at school security and safety plans, and a collaboration among the Fire, Police, Public Schools and the Mayor's office has resulted in a revamp. 

References to "hardening the target," begged the question: Will beefed-up efforts toward improving school security create a climate of fear among Norwalk children?

Norwalk Schools Superintendent Manuel Rivera explained how he reconciles the 'culture of fear' concern with the imperative to adapt to changing realities. 

"Children are already aware that safety is a concern, and the best thing to do is to prepare them," Rivera said. "Children understand what's unfortunately happened in so many schools. And when I go and watch them, they do take it very seriously."

Rivera said teachers, substitutes and all staff each receive an Emergency Response Guide, which broken down into four categories:
  • Lockdown - For example, if there is violence inside the school
  • Lockout - For example, if there is a rabid animal or security issue
  • Shelter in Place - For example, in a weather event such as a tornado
  • Evacuate - If it becomes necessary to relocate to another location
The Guide contains school specific information and maps, and includes communication with parents so they can reinforce safety lessons at home and understand their role in an emergency.

"They (teachers) are providing age appropriate instruction. They know how to work with students. It's not creating fear, but it's about promoting safety," Rivera said. "It's about being aware of surroundings. If you see something, say something....Whether it is with a classmate, or with an adult they may see lurking around a school. It's something of a culture shift that we're seeing around the schools." 

Denis McCarthy, Chief of the Norwalk Fire Dept., spoke further to the Emergency Procedures Guide, which he mentioned is inside a three-ring binder intentionally, in anticipation that it will evolve over time.

McCarthy, however, noted that the guide itself does not change from kindergarten through high school.

"It is the same plan. But, how it is delivered and taught needs to be age appropriate, so we allow the teachers and staffs to give them increasing responsibility over time, as they mature through the system and into high school," McCarthy said, adding that the overall goal is to impart life skills that the students will ultimately take with them to college and into the workplace.

Asked about how schools receive visitors during the school day, Bob Killackey, ROTC Teacher at Brien McMahon High School and member of the School Security and Planning team, described a detailed protocol. 

"The focus is on single-point access during the school day. All the doors are locked. That's a mandate," Killackey said.  "An individual would come up to the school, and depending on whether the school has a camera or not, or security personnel, the person would be identified, be buzzed in and go to the main office and sign in. If school personnel, know, for example that's a mother who volunteers, they still need to sign in and get a sticker or a badge. If it's somebody they don't know they would be asked for identification." 

Killackey added that signing out is just as important and that the team is looking into requiring each visitor to provide a cell phone number so that in the event that they don't sign out, the school can follow up, and if necessary, contact school security or the SRO as well as potentially activate the faculty.

Other high priority projects that have been completed by the safety committee include detailed school assessments, a door numbering system to help responders identify and arrive at specific locations and school safety team drills.

Also, a text messaging system will supplement the existing "school messenger" automated call system. The public school website is also being upgraded. 

According to Mayor Rilling, "We want people to know when they send their children to our schools that they are in safe surroundings and we're doing everything we can to protect them and return them home to their parents at the end of the day."

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