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Locked In? Assessing the impact of GFA lockdown on town's school security study

Published 7:31 am, Wednesday, February 27, 2013
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As they near a vote on the Board of Education's proposal for a $100,000 appropriation for a new security audit of the town's public schools, several key RTM members say the lockdown Friday at Greens Farms Academy set off by the pursuit of a stolen car suspect has reinforced their intent to support funding for the study.

"I would say what happened on Friday further exemplifies why we need to ensure that our schools need to be as safe as possible," said Melissa Kane, District 3, a member of the RTM's Public Protection Committee.

The RTM's Public Protection, Education and Finance committees have been scrutinizing school officials' request for a $100,000 allocation since the Board of Education approved last month that same funding request from Superintendent of Schools Elliott Landon to hire the security-consulting firm Kroll to produce a new security review of the town's eight public schools. Those three committees will likely vote on the proposed $100,000 appropriation at a joint meeting at 8:15 p.m. Thursday in Town Hall. The school board's funding request for the security audit will then face a review and vote by the full RTM at a meeting set for 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at Town Hall.

A number of RTM members have expressed support in public meetings during the last month for the proposed school-security review, which has dominated town officials' agenda since it was publicly presented by Landon within days of the Dec. 14 shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown.

"Given the nature of the study, and with the backing of the Board of Education, the Board of Finance and the police, this expense seems very appropriate to me," said Jeff Wieser, District 4, chairman of the Finance Committee. "The lockdown shows that schools can be a vulnerable place to be for a number of reasons and getting a good security audit will, hopefully, identify all of those concerns and what we can do to lessen them."

The Board of Finance has already approved the education board's $100,000 funding request for the Kroll study.

Friday's lockdown at Greens Farms Academy, a private K-12 school in the town's Greens Farms section, was one of the most high-profile police deployments in recent years at a Westport school. The lockdown lasted for about 90 minutes, as Westport and Fairfield police searched the GFA campus for the suspect, who abandoned a car at the school that he stole earlier in the day from a Blue Ribbon Drive home. He then fled the school grounds in another car, which reportedly belonged to a GFA security guard. The suspect was still at large early this week.

That incident does not appear to have substantially altered many RTM members' view of the proposed security study of the town's public schools, but rather underscored their existing positions.

"I already supported the $100,000 appropriation," said Lou Mall, District 2, an Education Committee member. "I don't believe that we should shortchange our children's safety, so what happened at GFA just reinforced what I believed."

But the proposed Kroll study has faced skepticism from some RTM members, with some questioning why the school district did not solicit bids for the project and others arguing that the town has sufficient resources to conduct a new security review without a consulting firm.

"My judgment is that Westport will obtain a better security result if it conducts its own security study with the Police Department taking the lead," said Don Bergmann, District 1. "I believe that the fact that our Police Department and the schools -- mostly the principals of each school, I suspect -- will be working closely in a cooperative and interactive way, without the presence of Kroll, a high-powered firm, and will generate a new knowledge base and positive relationship that will have numerous long-term benefits to the relationship between our police and our schools."

Other RTM members, such as Dick Lowenstein, whose district includes the GFA campus, remain undecided about the Kroll study.

"It doesn't change my thinking," Lowenstein, a Public Protection Committee member, said of the lockdown. "For me, it just showed how well the police responded and it was great to see the coordination between the police and GFA."

pschott@bcnnew.com; 203-255-4561, ext. 118; twitter.com/paulschott