In response to inquiries and comments, Suffield held a forum on Monday, March 12, to discuss safety and security in the town’s schools. The event had been scheduled some time ago in response to questions, but it became more significant after the February 14 school shooting in Parkland, Fla.
A sparse crowd of no more than a hundred came to the Middle School auditorium to hear some presentations and ask questions. The forum was opened by Suffield Police Captain Christopher McKee, and First Selectman Melissa Mack welcomed the audience. She reminded everyone that safeguarding our most precious resource – our children – is our number one priority. School Superintendent Karen Berasi then said security was a problem for all of us, and we must do what it will take to solve the problem,
Capt. McKee spoke briefly about the nature of crime. Regarding school shooters, he said nearly 50 percent had given warning signals; we must be alert to those. Then he introduced key personnel of the agencies involved in the evening’s topic, all seated at a long table in front of the stage: Suffield Emergency Manager (and Ambulance Chief) Art Groux, School Resource Officer Tom Kieselback, Police Chief Richard Brown, Superintendent Berasi, Fire Chief Charles Flynn, and School Business Manager Bill Hoff. Emergency Manager Groux spoke about the emphasis on emergency planning and training. Chief Brown reviewed the Police Department’s activities and how response plans are constantly exercised. Superintendent Berasi mentioned the structural improvements to school security that have been made and how teachers are trained in the matter. She urges teachers to “know your students and build relationships.” She would like more psychologists and more training. Chief Flynn said his department supports all the others in their drills and training. Training seemed to be a key element in all the comments.
Then Capt. McKee called for questions and comments. About twenty people responded, some more than once. Many of the questions concerned the general topic, but a good many were related to the Suffield High School incident on the preceding Friday, when a student went berserk in the school’s Commons and hinted that he had planted a bomb in the school.
A concerned parent asked how disabled children are helped in an emergency. Superintendent Berasi assured her there were plans in place for that. A man asked whether there had been an outside assessment of school security. Berasi said there was a survey two years ago, and another is planned. A woman said girls don’t feel secure in drills and during the morning arrival crowd and the afternoon departure. Berasi said drills were being revised; Emergency Manager Groux added that changes are made as we learn. Berasi said the morning and afternoon times are being reviewed and will become more structured. Perhaps backpacks will be prohibited, or required to be transparent.
Town official Peter Hill asked why school surveillance video was not available to the Suffield Police with a live feed to the Police Station. Berasi commented that the legal issue of privacy was involved. A young mother asked why the other schools weren’t shut down Friday as the high school was. Capt. McKee explained that Friday’s situation was very specific to the high school. Student Grace Cloyd said, “We needed more information Friday.” Capt. McKee responded, “You have to trust us.” A grandmother asked how everyone was accounted for. Chief Groux said within ten minutes everyone was checked off. One young woman felt a school resource officer was warranted at Suffield Middle School. Officer Kieselback described how he allocates his time among the several schools, but with most of his time at the high school.
Commenting about mental health, one speaker said we need more counselors. Berasi agreed that we should provide more counseling; and the schools need another psychologist. A speaker reported that neither the students nor the teachers responded well Friday.
First Selectman’s Assistant Kim Worthington asked about the difference between 211 (the community hotline) and 911. Berasi said “We’re training for that, but when it’s violence, call 911.” A man claimed there should be four school resource officers. Chief Brown said a second would be possible. There were questions about the use of metal detectors and about arming teachers. There was more talk about mental health.
With questioning exhausted, Capt. McKee thanked everyone, especially Amy Reay, who, he said, helped put this all together. Then he brought the two-hour session to a close. He said, “We have a lot to think about – please work with us.”