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Out of the Woods / Oops! School security plan omitted police input

Updated 2:09 pm, Friday, February 15, 2013
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When you have a problem concerning beefing up school security in any city or town in America, whom should you consult with first? The local Police Department, of course. What better expertise than that of the uniformed men and women who are highly trained to protect all of the townspeople!

Unfortunately, when Superintendent of Schools Elliott Landon recently asked the finance board for $100,000 to hire a consultant to draw up a plan to protect all of our students in Westport's schools, he forgot that his personal education empire was not the only game in town. Instead, he unilaterally selected a security company and made headlines on his own.

Quick to point out this serious bureaucratic error in judgment at last Wednesday's Board of Finance meeting -- which previously had approved $50,000 at its Jan. 7 meeting -- was an alert board member, John Pincavage. He was quoted in last Friday's paper by reporter Paul Schott as sharply criticizing the omission of the Police Department.

"The process is screwed up," he said. "It's like the Marines decided to land on the beach with amphibious landing and then they look over their shoulder and say, `Oh, Navy, come along and back us up.'"

Pincavage added: "Instead of getting the people involved and putting a strategy together, figuring out what the game plan is going to be, and having a lot of input from valuable sources in the town, it's like a decision was made `OK. I want to take this firm.'" The company in question is the Manhattan-based Kroll Inc., enthusiastically endorsed by Landon who said "there is no better firm."

I give Landon and the Board of Education credit for rapidly responding to the tragedy of the slaughter at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, but in the rush to take action, they inexcusably forgot the value of teamwork and cooperation in government. In addition to Pincavage, a number of other finance board members expressed dissatisfaction that the Police Department was not consulted by school officials before they picked Kroll.

Ordinarily, a police chief would be furious about such a glaring omission. But Dale Call, Westport's calm and deliberate police chief, kept his powder dry, so to speak. He simply responded to an inquiry from this newspaper by saying that he would ask his department and the town's emergency services to work closely with school officials and other departments in developing a comprehensive security plan.

He also disclosed that his department had not been invited to a closed-door "executive session" of the Board of Finance that took place last month shortly before the board voted to approve the initial $50,000 funding request. Call, who has emphasized his department's effort to reach out to the community, added:

"Police, fire and EMS need to be intimately involved. The biggest problem you will see in any plan that works with school systems and your police departments is there's silo one and silo two, and nobody talks to each other. If we've learned anything, everybody's got to talk and there's got to be communication. There needs to be real participation by the emergency services."

Call also addressed the question of placing police officers in the schools by stating that with the department's current staff levels "It's not even an option for us."

As for a thorough security plan itself, the finance board did not vote last week on the additional $50,000 request -- and wisely so. Several board members, starting with Chairman Avi Kaner, suggested the formation of a new school security task force.

Landon, apparently realizing that he had blundered, immediately responded that he would implement the idea by convening a task force composed of school administrators, police officers, and members of the community to ensure the plan is "Westport-driven." The finance board was scheduled to meet again tonight.

Now that the public knows the full story on how the original task force was convened, I would urge the appointment of a trilogy of chairmen of the taskforce -- Landon, First Selectman Gordon Joseloff, and Chief Call. Between the three, they are responsible for the health and safety of all Westporters.

As for other town facilities, Joseloff told the finance board last week that he has directed Chief Call and Public Works Director Steve Edwards to review what they can do to safeguard individuals working in all town buildings. That would make the security plan all-inclusive. Joseloff needs to follow through.

Overall, in my view, town officials -- especially Landon, Hall and Joseloff -- should take more time to develop a detailed, fully-coordinated security plan. Better to do it right than do it in a rush for the sake of public relations. The children and adults in our town deserve nothing less.

Woody Klein is a Westport writer. His "Out of the Woods" appears every other Wednesday. He can be reached at woodyklein12@gmail.com