Up until this past December, parent and staff volunteers worked the front entrances at each of New Canaan's elementary schools and Saxe Middle School, checking-in visitors as they arrived and helping them with directions to where they needed to go.
But since the tragedy at Sandy Hook School in Newtown, there aren't as many parent volunteers coming forward to take on the task, Board of Education Chairman Alison Bedula said during Wednesday's special budget meeting with the Town Council.
As a result, the principals at the schools recently started using a mix of teaching and support staff to help cover the front entrances, where dozens of visitors check in and check out each day. However this approach had the unfortunate downside of drawing staff away from instructional duties, Bedula explained.
As such, the school district is requesting a special appropriation of $226,000 for five, unarmed "campus monitors" who will be dedicated to working the main entrances of the three elementary schools and the two entrances at Saxe Middle School (New Canaan High School is already protected by a School Resource Officer, or SRO, who is integrated with the school staff).
"When the tragedy in Newtown happened, a line was crossed that no one ever thought would be crossed, and that changed everything," Bedula said. "Parents no longer wanted that responsibility, sitting at that desk and deciding who was going to come in and who was not going to come in. And quite frankly as a Board of Ed, we weren't comfortable putting that on parents either."
Superintendent of Schools Mary Kolek said the decision to request the unarmed guards is the result of extensive collaboration with New Canaan Police, the district's Crisis Advisory Board and town and school officials.
"When the tragedy occurred at Sandy Hook, we went back and looked at all our [security] procedures," Kolek said. "We are fortunate that we've had a long term dedication to this area — a few years back a safety committee in town instituted the buzz-in system at each building and we added a welcome center."
Kolek said it's challenging to implement new security measures while at the same time maintaining a school environment that is open and inviting.
"You want a good positive school climate, where students and staff feel safe and welcome," she said, adding, however, that at the same time school officials need to keep close track of who is coming and going, as well as tracking their movements while they are in the facility.
Kolek said in addition to installing buzzers at each front entrance, all visitors are now required to sign in and sign out, as well as wear a visitors pass while they are in the facility.
Keeping track of all those comings and goings, however, is a difficult and time consuming task, she said, and having someone who is trained in greeting visitors and quickly determining their intentions would produce a safer school environment.
Kolek pointed out that the campus monitors are much different than school resource officers, in that they are not armed, nor are they integrated with the school staff.
"This is really about having somebody at that front door," she said.
Kolek said the fact that the district cut about ten instructional aides from the budget during the past few years hasn't helped. As a result, "we really don't have anyone who we can call" to cover the front entrances, as educational assistants are needed for other duties such as working in the classroom, or monitoring the lunch room or playground. And when the schools do rely on staff, "we are pulling away from the educational program," she said.
Kolek said the school district would more than likely outsource the campus monitors from one of several security firms. Assistant Superintendent of Human Resources Gary Kass said he looked at five different firms, and that all five varied greatly in terms of price and their approach to recruiting and training. He and Kolek said the $226,000 is based on estimates provided by the one firm they felt will best meet the district's needs.
Kolek said the advantage of outsourcing the campus monitors is that it takes away any risk for the town in terms of investing in personnel and training. It also solves the problem of staffing: "When you have a contracted service, you always get a sub," she said.
Kolek said although the monitors work for the security company, the school district would still have the opportunity to interview each monitor to ensure a good fit with school culture.
Town Council member John Engel expressed concern that the request for $226,000 wasn't reflective of the true cost of hiring the five monitors.
"The $226,000 doesn't feel like a fully loaded number, because there is only a labor component in there — there's no technology, no swipe cards, no radios," Engel said. "That makes me think that it's just an earmark that is destined to grow. Once we get the company in here, they might say 'we need new radios so we can communicate with the police; we need swipe cards for the doors; we need a database to figure out who comes and who goes... ' and I wonder what else is coming behind this."
"I think we agree that the current system is unsustainable, which is entirely volunteer, and yet I look at our fire department, which is partly volunteer, and I look at our ambulance service, which is entirely volunteer — these are important things to this community and we fight like heck to keep them that way," he added.
Engel said in recent weeks numerous school parents have come to him saying they would prefer to have SROs and not campus monitors.
"Some of them have come to me and said, 'I don't think that an unarmed, out-of-town outsider, who doesn't know us, sitting at the door, is effective... why don't we invest in the tools and technology to make those volunteers feel safer.. and have the police force tell us whether we are monitoring our doors adequately?'" he said.
Engel pointed out that Chief of Police Edward Nadriczny has already requested $60,000 for an SRO for Saxe.
In addition to the budgetary considerations, Engel also raised concerns about the appearance of the campus monitors and how that might affect school culture.
"Are they going to have a badge? Am I going to get a bunch of TSA security guards at the doors of my schools?" he quipped. "Because I don't think that's the culture we're tying to build here. We've always used a culture of volunteerism and suddenly that's not working — and now we're looking to a professional outsourced agency approach."
"I'm still not convinced that the five outsourced contractors are going to be sufficiently well trained and inculcated into the culture... that they will have accountability to the police force... ," Engel said. "I have a lot of questions... I am having a tough time with the approach."
The Board of Education and Town Council will continue their discussion on campus monitors proposal at 7:30 p.m. tonight at the New Canaan Nature Center, with possible action from the Town Council to follow.