Branford’s top school officials said major renovations at a school with few interior walls and doors may be on the fast track. The board also got a green light from most board members regarding a proposal to bring a school resource officer to Walsh Intermediate School.
As the Board of Education (BOE) discussed school safety issues at a meeting last night, a Branford parent who has spearheaded the push for renovations at Walsh asked if the state task force for school safety is addressing open-concept buildings.
“The biggest safety measure would be walls and doors that lock,” Nichole Cipriano (pictured) told the board Wednesday. Walsh was built in 1972 as an open-space school with few interior walls.
“The school presents a challenge,” said Superintendent Hamlet Hernandez. He said he is not aware of any pending state legislation that addresses this particular situation, and that it would be a local issue to solve.
Cipriano asked the BOE if renovation plans at Walsh can be accelerated, in light of the statewide school safety concerns.
“It really speaks to acceleration,” Hernandez said.
The BOE also discussed the possibility of placing a police officer known as school resource officer (SRO) at Walsh, and the majority of board members agreed with the idea. Board members Mario Sabatini and Mary Grande said placing an SRO at Walsh would be helpful, considering the challenges of the open-concept school. “Lock-downs have a totally different meaning” at Walsh than at traditional schools, Sabatini said.
Schools statewide are working to upgrade safety in the aftermath of the December tragedy in Newtown where 20 students and six staff members were killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School after a lone heavily armed gunman stormed the building. The state legislature is looking at several measures to reduce gun violence and improve school safety.
Frank Carrano, who chairs the BOE, said there is already movement on the Walsh renovation proposal. He said architects from Silver/Petrucelli & Associates will give a report at the April BOE meeting on the feasibility of renovations. The firm was hired to develop a cost analysis and sketches for possible major renovations.
“They’re going to come back with some ideas for us… classrooms with doors and walls,” Carrano told Cipriano. He said if the board eventually approves the renovations, the next step would be taking the project to the Board of Finance (BOF) and the Representative Town Meeting (RTM).
The BOE capital budget presented to the BOF contains no funding for major renovations at Walsh, nor does it contain funding requests for safety upgrades in the district. School officials said a budget addendum could be added for safety upgrades. In regard to the Walsh renovation project, Carrano said he hopes to “move it quickly” through the approval process, but that the first step is the report on the feasibility study. “Come to the April meeting,” he advised.
The BOF’s final budget announcement for the town’s school and town budgets will be presented at a formal meeting Monday at 7.p.m. Tonight is the final budget hearing, which begins at 7 p.m. All meetings are held at the firehouse.
Some walls and half-partitions have been erected at Walsh over the years, but parents have continued to complain about the noise levels and other issues. Cipriano and Kate Ross have repeatedly asked the BOE for renovations, and the two parents presented a petition with about 300 names to the RTM and the Board of Selectmen last year. The BOE convened a Facilities Committee last summer to look into possible solutions for Walsh and also for the aging Sliney Elementary School. Click here to read about the committee’s November meeting when Carrano announced an architectural firm would be hired.
SCHOOL RESOURCE OFFICER AT WALSH?
One member of the BOE is opposed to having an armed police officer in the schools. “I can support it if a gun is not involved,” said John Prins. (pictured). Police Chief Kevin Halloran told the Eagle every Branford police officer must be armed.
The issue of acquiring a School Resource Officer for Walsh was first discussed at a BOE meeting last month, but no vote was taken. The issue of funding was raised at a meeting of the Board of Finance Monday. Click here to read about last month’s school board discussion and click here to read about budget issues.
Carrano said the Board of Finance is expected to decide the funding issue regarding the SRO Monday night. The money would come out of the police budget. Carrano said he totally supports the idea of an SRO at Walsh, but he wanted to find out the school board’s position. This was the first time the matter was discussed by the school board.
“They are valuable resources in the building,” Carrano said. “The students over time learn to interact with these people … and develop a relationship.” He said he has seen them work well in other schools. “The right person with the right training … could be a very valuable asset.”
Hernandez said the SRO would be one piece of the safe school environment at Walsh. He said the officer would act as a liaison to the students and as an educator.
“We see the role of the SRO as being rather comprehensive, not just a police officer placed in the school,” Hernandez told the board. However, he said if something should happen, the SRO would be the first emergency responder on the scene.
Sabatini said an SRO for Walsh would be beneficial but he asked what would happen if the police budget could not sustain the position on a long-term basis.
“As a town, if we look at this more globally…we should be looking at it more as sharing,” Hernandez said in regard to the school district and the police department sharing funding for the SRO. He said hopefully there could be grant dollars available in the future.
Board member Michael Krause asked if the board would have any say in the selection of the officer.
Hernandez said that the SRO would be hired by the police department, but the school board could suggest the qualities they are looking for in a school officer.
Board member Susan Wharfe said she was concerned that having a police officer in the school would tend to criminalize petty things that the youngsters do. “You don’t want that to happen,” she said.
Hernandez said the idea is to educate children about good behavior and to prevent them from becoming involved in something more serious.
Wharfe suggested conducting a parent survey before making a decision. “It’s a big change for the parents and the school,” she said.
Although board members had several questions about the SRO program, Prins was the only one who rejected to an armed officer. “I’m fully onboard with the concept of needing additional personnel…but adamantly opposed to putting a gun in the school,” he said. He said the gun should be left at the police station.
Carrano said the SRO issue may be moot if the Board of Finance does not approve funding for the position.
“My sense is that the majority of the board supports this,” Carrano said, as most school board members nodded their heads in agreement. Board member David Squires was absent.
No vote was taken.