Branford Parents Speak Out About School Security

Sally E. Bahner PhotoSpurred by the recent report of a so-called intruder at Branford High School and the recent shootings at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, Branford residents turned out at last week’s meeting of the Board of Education’s Communication Committee (pictured) to request better… communication.

And in response to the Parkland shootings, in which 17 students and faculty were murdered, organizers along the shoreline are planning a march, “March For Our Lives,” in Guilford and Hartford on March 24.

Using information from the U.S. Department of Education, the FBI, parent reviews and other data, a recent Niche.com survey looked at the 102 safest school districts in Connecticut. Branford was ranked no. 102, receiving a B in health and safety; A- in academics, teachers, and clubs and activities; B- in diversity; A in college prep; and an overall grade of B+, keeping in mind that this was the last of the best.

On Feb. 16, two days after the Parkland shooting, Branford police reported “a trespassing complaint of a juvenile (not a Branford student) at Branford High School. During the incident, no threats were made toward any individual, group of students, or staff.”

As it turned out, the youth just wanted to visit a friend at the school.

The incident was deemed benign, but not before it created a firestorm on social media, igniting instant fear and anger among parents even though there was no incident, police said.

Parents Say They Are Kept In Dark  

Sally E. Bahner PhotoAt the communications committee meeting held at Branford High School, parent Nancy Kendrick (pictured), asked the committee for better communication regarding such incidents. She said she requested information from the district three times. “Incidents like last week’s created a life of its own,” she said. “Issues like this raise anxiety in kids… Help us during these scary times… If you know something, say something.”

Celica Toche of Branford Families urged the district to “stay in touch with us.” She also cited the noise level from the work on the Community House/Senior Center, its proximity to the John B. Sliney elementary school playground, and the resulting stress on the kids.

Sally E. Bahner PhotoToche (pictured) also requested a heads up from the Board of Education in regard to its agendas. “It’s becoming more important to learn what’s being discussed,” she said. Explain in a sentence her concern. Are they not posted or are they too vague?

Kelly Manware, who has three children at the high school, asked about the $80,000 received from the state for security will be spent. She said she hasn’t seen any change. “The lack of communication does not make us feel safe,” she said. “Things have to change. Sandy Hook was close to all of us.”

She asked about the number of drills that have been held at the high school and expressed concern about Walsh Intermediate School, where she said there have been no drills in a school without doors. “They don’t know what measures to take,” she claimed.

Communications Committee chair Joanne Borrus said that there will be meetings on security concerns.

Schools Superintendent Hamlet Hernandez said the $80,000 grant was used to replace locks so they lock from the inside. He added that security cameras have been installed inside and outside along with panic buttons and double foyers, and security guards have been hired.  “Our intention is to keep students as safe as possible,” Hernandez said. “Security is layered.”

Chris Hynes, a parent, questioned the frequency of drills in the schools.

BHS principal Lee Panagoulias said the bomb threat in October resulted in evacuation of the school, adding that there have been two fire drills.

Hernandez said a lockdown will take place, with an announcement preceding it so as not to upset students and personnel. He said the state mandates drills on a monthly basis. He also said the district is looking into a security consultant.

Security was also discussed within the budget at the Personnel and Finance Committee, which followed.  An additional security guard will be in place at Walsh during reconstruction of the school and changes in drop off locations. There was also discussion of security at Indian Neck Family Resources Center, which houses the youngest kids and is “off the beaten path.”

East Haven’s Reaction

The East Haven School District sprung into action a day after the Parkland shooting with police visiting schools to discuss lockdown drills and the importance of putting them into action. Police presence was increased there and at Hamden and Shelton schools. That did not happen in Branford. The press release stated that police will continue to train with every school in town to ensure the safety of students and staff.

In the days that followed the Florida shooting, the demand for better gun control was led by the teenagers, who met with legislators and articulately expressed their concerns with a maturity that belied their youth. A poll over the past couple of days found that 70 percent of those surveyed support stricter gun control laws.

Arming Teachers?

Donald Trump has called for “hardening schools,” and arming teachers with guns, noting that he would “run in there” even if he didn’t have a weapon. That concept has been criticized nationally, statewide, and locally.

Board of Education member John Prins, stated in a post on social media: “I can think of nothing more counterproductive, culture crushing and dangerous than putting a weapon in the hands of school personnel at any level. Put a gun into a place where there wasn’t one before and you’ve just changed the likelihood from zero to 100% that something will happen with that weapon – and it will decidedly not be good. Maybe the young people of Parkland will finally show us how to neutralize the grip of the gun lobby on our elected representatives. One can only hope.”

Board member Ellen Michaels supported the post. Another board member, John O’Connor said arming teachers is “the worst plan ever conceived;” he said it was a distraction from the real issues. (O’Connor noted that he was speaking personally, not as a board member.)

In interviews on cable networks over the weekend, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy expressed outrage at the idea of arming teachers. Citing its stricter gun laws in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook shootings in 2012, Connecticut, he said, has seen the largest drop in gun-related violence, along with six other states and Washington, D.C.

He advocates changing the culture to make it less violent, calling for universal background checks; he added that background checks are “the cheap way to make things safer.” He is also in favor of better monitoring of mental health and banning “bump stocks.” However, Malloy said he’s pessimistic on a national basis and warned that mass shootings “will happen near you.”

U.S. Sens. Chris Murphy, Richard Blumenthal and Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro have all been longtime advocates for stronger background checks and stricter gun control laws.

The Shoreline March Response

Several dates have been set for rallies and marches throughout the state and the country: March 14 (Women’s March Action), March 24 (#MarchForOurLives), and April 20 (#NationalSchoolWalkout), the 19th anniversary of the Columbine School shooting.  Facebook has been a critical tool in organizing responses.

Frank Blackwell, a Guilford-based photographer, writer, and corporate filmmaker, is organizing a march in Guilford under the #MarchForOurLives theme on Saturday, March 24.  Lynda Mollow, a Branford parent and school organizer, is also involved.

He’s contacted the selectmen of Branford, Guilford, Madison, and Clinton for help in promoting the event. First Selectman Jamie Cosgrove said that he advised Blackwell to contact local media.

The march will run from 12:30 to 3:30 p.m., with the route from the Guilford Fairgrounds to the Guilford Green. Organized on Facebook, its “goal is to organize a local march for gun control legislation that will allow area citizens to participate locally and have their voices heard. There are many people who might not be compelled to travel to New Haven, Hartford, or NYC to march but who would participate as part of a unified local event in support of the national movement for sensible effective gun control.”

Mollow said that some high school kids are interested in becoming more vocal, but don’t know how to become organized. She said Blackwell was contacted by the father of Ethan Song of Guilford, who died of gunshot wound in a friend’s home. State Rep. Sean Scanlon has been contacted and it is hoped he will participate.

A sign-making event ahead of the march will take place at the Branford Art Center Gallery and Workshop, 1229 Main St., on Thursday, March 22, from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Mollow had said earlier that a sign-making event was planned and that it was a good way of brainstorming to get messages across in a succinct way.

A march will also take place on March 14 in Hartford at the Connecticut State Capitol, beginning at 12:30 p.m., organized by Women’s March Connecticut – We March On and Tyler Suarez through Facebook.

Additional marches and forums are planned throughout the state for March 24 and April 20.

Along with bringing awareness to the need for stricter gun control and honoring victims of gun violence, organizers are encouraging eligible high school students to register to vote. Activist Tom Steyer has pledged $1 million to encourage registration.

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posted by: Common on February 28, 2018  3:36pm

So the BHS principal say they have had 2 fire drills and one bomb threat evacuation which I guess he wants to include as a “drill”. Perhaps he and Hamlet and the BOE should know there is a State law that requires a fire drill every month, with a crisis drill replacing the fire drill every 3 months. This is not a new law. The crisis drill was added 5 years ago. We are now 6 months into the school year. What about the other 3 required drills? Must be that new math they are teaching. This non-compliance by an overpaid administration is one of the reasons that Branford ranks dead last in school safety in CT. If Hamlet gets a raise for doing something he is supposed to do anyways, I’m expecting any day now that the BOE will be submitting the pay reduction paperwork for not doing one his most important jobs, which is keeping our children safe. You really can’t make this stuff up.

posted by: redman on February 28, 2018  3:56pm

It’s been 5 years since Newtown occurred. The front doors of Branford schools are still mostly glass which are easily broken into. Start at the front door and make it secure. Then each classroom should have a secure door, a simple metal bar would be enough to stop and intruder from getting into a classroom, giving enough time for the police to arrive. It doesn’t take a huge investment to make schools more secure. Doing nothing is not acceptable. Gun laws won’t stop illegal guns any more than it stops illegal drugs.