Soon after the tragic shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School last December, Monroe mobilized into action, organizing meetings with Newtown's school administrators and gaining speedy approvals to open up the Chalk Hill building on Fan Hill Road to use by the students and staff of Sandy Hook.
"I think it's serendipitous that we were in a position to help, that we had a vacant building that was in close proximity to Newtown and the area served by Sandy Hook," Monroe Supt. of Schools James Agostine recalled. "We're just happy the stars aligned and we were able to provide this."
Monroe Public schools lent the assistance of Bruce Lazar — an administrator who used to be principal of Chalk Hill when the town used it as a school — and close to 200 staff members from the district helped set up classrooms. Monroe Police Chief John Salvatore added patrols to secure the campus from distractions while the building was being prepared, then to make families feel safe once classes were back in session.
But the wave of journalists and well-intentioned people trying to offer assistance at the school continued roll in.
Chief John Salvatore said his officers turned away reporters and photographers from as far away as Turkey, England and France. Now with the one-year anniversary of the tragedy this Saturday, the chief anticipates more attempts by outsiders to access school grounds.
"They don't want this attention," Salvatore said of the families. "We cannot forget the event but, in my opinion, it doesn't help for the media to be taking pictures of teachers and students. How does that help us remember? I don't think it helps to descend on that school."
"Our purpose, our mission here on the police department, has been to, as much as possible, have that school assume more of a normal educational environment," Salvatore said. "It's a difficult task with what these families have experienced."
Salvatore said his officers have been nothing but respectable in honoring the Sandy Hook families, but added there is nothing heroic in what they've done.
However, he said, "I'm extremely proud of their professionalism, how they responded to the needs of this school and the safety and security they've provided — and the atmosphere they provide."
Out of Tragedy ... Change
Prior to the Sandy Hook shooting, Agostine said Monroe Public Schools was already working with police on school security, but after the tragedy he said demand rose, leading to even more ambitious efforts.
Agostine said the concentration was initially on technology upgrades, drills and emergency plans before the incident in Sandy Hook added a stronger focus on facilities.
Monroe's schools have cameras by the entrances, badges for staff to unlock doors and intercoms for members of the public to be buzzed in. Other upgrades include bollards that cars cannot fit between, sallyports and doors with key locks on both sides — the latter was provided through Honeywell energy efficiency projects.
"We were able to pull it off and have it ready for the school year," Agostine said. "And that happened with the support of the community. We had to have an overall plan and we were able to articulate it from the beginning."
A Police Presence
In addition to having a police presence at the new Sandy Hook School, town police are also doing more for Monroe's schools.
"We're adding two SRO's," Salvatore said of school resource officers. "We had asked for three."
The Monroe Police Department also asked for two more dispatchers last budget season and received one more.
Salvatore said changing technology, services and liability issues had already made additional dispatchers a town need. However, it is the dispatchers who monitor screens showing footage from security cameras at the town's schools.
"We always had a good relationship with our school system," Salvatore said. "I think it's made it more of a personal interaction. Officers step into the schools when they have free time."
'The New Normal'
Monroe's students are doing fire drills in a way that was once unheard of ... at lunch time.
"It was too chaotic," Agostine said of the reason not to schedule drills at lunch time. "Now we have to practice for the unexpected."
The school system has a four prong plan: Facilities, technology, police presence and changing behaviors.
An example of the last one, according to Agostine, is to get children out of the habit of opening a locked entrance door when someone is knocking.
The tragedy on Dec. 14, 2012 has changed the way schools do business. Now Agostine said students and staff must be vigilant when strangers and even parents visit.
"Even deliveries, you have to be vigilant — closing doors and making sure they're locked," he said. "We don't want to be a prison and in a bubble. On the other hand, student safety is first and foremost."
"This is the new normal, unfortunately — and I don't see it coming back," Agostine said. "We spent the last 30 years trying to get the public to come into our schools. Now we're trying to restrict access."