As officials prepare to launch a new security audit of the town's public schools, a number of parents expressed concerns Monday night to the Board of Education about the school district's existing security infrastructure and protocols.
The parents' worries reflect the pronounced unease that many town residents still feel about children's safety at school one month after the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, which took the lives of 20 first-grade students and six educators.
"It's disgusting how easy it is to walk into that school," Neil Phillips, the father of two kindergartners at Kings Highway Elementary School, said of that building. "I think you need to reach out to the parents because we're the ones that know where you get into that school and how you can walk through those hallways with ease."
Since the Newtown tragedy, Westport parents at several school board meetings have voiced support for more comprehensive security measures at the town's schools.
Jane Raba, the mother of a kindergartner at Saugatuck Elementary School, said heightened school security in Westport would align the district with more robust security practices at private schools and urban school districts.
"Our kids see security guards and see machine guns when they go through Grand Central station," Raba said. "It's only the suburban public schools that are left out at this point from having security for our students."
In response to the Sandy Hook shootings, the Board of Finance unanimously approved earlier this month a $50,000 funding request from the Board of Education for the new security audit. The study will cover all eight of the town's public schools, Town Hall and the school district's bus fleet. The last comprehensive security audit of Westport public schools was conducted in 2007.
The $50,000 funding request for the security audit will also require approval from the Representative Town Meeting.
Parents have indicated their support for the security audit, but they have made other suggestions as well.
Robert Cantor recommended levying a 1 percent property tax increase on commercial property owners to fund the deployment of plainclothes police officers at the schools.
"Property taxes on commercial properties in this town are very low," Cantor said. "If you raised them by 1 percent, the landlords are going to pass them onto the renters and you would have more than enough to hire an army of policemen for the schools."
Other parents emphasized the importance of preparing students for emergencies on school grounds.
"If people are trained over and over again, there are certain things they retain and it's quickness, it's the not getting too emotional," said Ginny McGovern, co-president of the Westport Parent Teacher Association Council. "Some of the people who don't can help some of the people who are falling apart."
School board members did not comment publicly Monday on school security because they are still "awaiting expert advice on the best course of action and we anticipate receiving that at the conclusion of the security audit process," said board Chairwoman Elaine Whitney.
"At the appropriate time, the Board of Education does intend to discuss with the appropriate town officials and the public our plans for enhancing the security of our schools to the extent that we are able to do so without compromising the safety and security of our students and staff," Whitney said.
Education officials have so far have not given a timeline for when they expect the security study to be completed.
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