Westport schools OK ‘concept’ of school resource officer
WESTPORT — In an effort to buttress school security, school officials have decided they are open to the idea of adding an armed school resource officer to Staples High School.
The Board of Education voted five to two in favor of the “concept” of adding an SRO, which was first broached last fall at the urging of Superintendent of Schools Colleen Palmer and has gained traction recently after the school massacre at Parkland, Fla., and after a student allegedly had thoughts of conducting a mass shooting at Staples in late February.
Still, the proposal was controversial, and the board, and members of the public, weighed in for nearly two hours Monday.
“Sanctioning guns in our schools is not the answer,” said Staples senior Lydia Donovan, referring to SROs as “armed guards” and citing statistics from the nonprofit Everytown for Gun Safety that out of 168 school shootings, one in five were unintentional and one in six started as a confrontation that escalated because of the presence of a gun.
“An armed guard is not the answer. An extra gun is never the answer,” Donovan said.
Donovan was one of several members of the public who voiced concerns, but many others felt it was an important enhancement to school safety.
“I have found that the role of the SROs have been vital to supporting a safe environment within our schools,” Palmer said, citing her prior experience as an administrator in Wilton working with SROs.
John Horrigan, president of the Westport Education Association, questioned how the SROs would be paid for in a tight budget year, with the Board of Finance already looking to the Board of Education to make cuts. Palmer said after the meeting that the SRO, or SROs, would likely be funded out of the police budget. The Board of Education is expected to vote at its April 23 meeting on how many SROs it would like to add to the schools.
Westport schools are the only schols in their district resource group without an SRO. According to Palmer, the job would not just include law enforcement and safety, but would involve being a role model, mentor and educator in the classroom. She shared SRO job descriptions with the board from surrounding districts.
“We’ve talked about this for well over a year- and-a-half now. I’m fully in support of this. I think it’s the logical step in our security plan,” said Chief of Police Foti Koskinas, noting extra benefits, like stronger student-police relationships SROs could facilitate.
Board of Education member Karen Kleine said prior to a recent visit to Ridgefield public schools to meet with administrators and SROs, she likely would have opposed the concept, but was heartened by the success of the system in the nearby town. Chairman Michael Gordon, too, said he likely would have been opposed in the past, but given recent events had reconsidered his stance.
Board members Mark Mathias and Vik Muktavaram were the two dissenters.
Mathias questioned whether he was comfortable having guns in schools every day, calling the decision “really hard,” and questioning the necessity of SROs.
“The fundamental question I’m struggling with, for me, is what’re we giving up?” Muktavaram said. “Philosophically, I’m opposed to having guns inside the school. Obviously some situations demand it. But having guns inside the schools on an ongoing basis — I don’t like that notion.”
Muktavaram warned against Westport joining the “arms race” by putting guns in schools. He pointed out that for every Maryland that is a success, referencing the SRO that engaged a student shooter last week, there is a Parkland that is not, and urged the board to re-frame the discussion as more of a health issue than a security issue.
“Wouldn’t it be better to prevent the root cause than to react?” Muktavaram asked.
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