School safety panel formed after Sandy Hook shooting struggles to continue work
Vacancies on Connecticut's School Safety Infrastructure Council have prevented the group from reviewing its criteria, as required by state law.
At the front door of Manchester’s Verplanck Elementary School, visitors are greeted by the sound of electronic chimes, followed by the voice of secretary Natalie Dark speaking over the intercom.
“Can I help you?” she asks, peering at video from a surveillance camera displayed on her phone.
In years past, visitors to school buildings in Connecticut could often stroll into the central office, passing unnoticed through unlocked doors. But heightened security measures, like those in Manchester, are now all but universal in new or renovated schools.
Those changes came in the months after the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting and were due in large part to the work of a little-known state panel.
Established in 2013, the School Safety Infrastructure Council was a key component of Connecticut’s response to the tragic events in Newtown. The 11-member board was charged with setting guidelines for school design.
And while its work was instrumental in the years after Sandy Hook, enshrining safety standards that remain in use today, the council has been largely dormant in recent years, due in part to apparent vacancies that have yet to be filled.
A review by Connecticut Public of the group’s meeting records from the last three years shows that flagging attendance prevented the board from fulfilling its legislative mandate, which includes a yearly review of its safety criteria.
But it’s unclear whether that December 2021 message prompted any response within state government. Two lawmakers with appointment authority for the board told Connecticut Public last week they were unaware the seats needed to be filled. Both said staff would investigate the circumstances.
Others did not respond to requests for comment.
“I’m disappointed,” said former state Rep. Andy Fleischmann, who served as House chairman of the Education Committee and helped draft the legislation through which the council was formed in 2013.
“There is this natural human tendency to address a problem, and then to assume that you’re done,” he said. “And I think that that is probably what the state has fallen victim to here.”
'Never this vulnerable again'
Back in 2013, lawmakers considered a raft of proposals to harden security in schools, ranging from adopting emergency communication systems to setting universal entry procedures – even standardizing window heights.
Fleischmann says they realized they needed help from experts. But after hearing hours of testimony, lawmakers also saw drawbacks in mandating a rigid approach to school design.
“We were pretty committed in a bipartisan way to figuring out what are the steps we can take to ensure that other kids in Connecticut classrooms are never this vulnerable again,” he recalled.
Their solution was the formation of the School Safety Infrastructure Council. Members have expertise in a range of disciplines, including law enforcement, engineering and public education.
The board’s immediate task was to examine a variety of school building safety infrastructure areas, including entryways, ballistic glass, solid core doors, locking systems, closed-circuit television monitoring, use of security cameras and protections inside the classroom.
To ensure the standards it chose were adopted, the state leveraged its role as a major funding source for school construction projects, requiring school districts to certify they complied with the safety criteria in order to receive state funds. Lawmakers also made millions of dollars available for safety enhancements through a new competitive grant program.
The criteria were first established in 2014, and later refined in a 2015 update, which provided more guidance around how they should be interpreted. They have since remained unchanged, despite a legislative mandate for the safety council to review and update them as necessary on an annual basis.
The intention behind that requirement was for the council to remain nimble and address evolving technology and safety threats, Fleischmann said.
“If you have a standing committee that is assessing and reassessing, it’s obviously going to be more responsive than a statute that’s enacted and then left there on the statute books,” he said.
'Time to take a fresh look'
Most recently, council members voted in December 2018 to readopt the existing guidelines from three years earlier. Meeting records show the group has struggled since then to assemble enough members to take any official action.
The job of filling vacancies falls to the governor and legislative leaders in the House and Senate, both Republicans and Democrats. By statute, the governor seats two members, while the Senate president, House speaker and majority and minority leaders of each chamber fill one post each. Staff from the state departments of administrative services, education and emergency services and public protection also hold seats.
In an interview last week, Senate President Martin Looney told Connecticut Public his office was not notified of a vacancy and will now determine if it needs to make a new appointment to the council.
Looney said he will also consider whether districts need more money for school safety projects, since the first round of funding provided several years ago was an important incentive for many schools to modernize their facilities.
“I think it’s time to take a fresh look at all of that and see where we stand relative to what our needs are,” he said.
The safety council was chaired in recent years by Konstantinos Diamantis, the state’s former school construction chief. Diamantis abruptly resigned from his position as a deputy budget secretary in the Office of Policy and Management in October 2021 and is now at the center of a federal probe involving school construction contracts, according to federal law enforcement records. He denies any wrongdoing.
A new chairman from the state’s Office of School Construction Grants & Review stepped in to lead the council in December 2021.
The Connecticut Department of Administrative Services provides additional staffing support to the group. A DAS spokeswoman did not directly address questions from Connecticut Public but said in a written statement issued Saturday that the agency has been working hard to ensure vacancies are filled.
Three new members were seated in June 2021: two appointed by Gov. Ned Lamont and one by the Senate majority leader.
She added that DAS proposes merging the safety council with another state board that oversees school construction. The two meet simultaneously, and perform complementary tasks, so combining them would “ensure consistency in policy and efficiency of execution,” the spokeswoman wrote.
'Security is a journey'
Guy Bliesner, a school security analyst for the state of Idaho and Midwestern representative on the National Council on School Facilities, said it’s important for school leaders to continually reassess their approach.
“Each time we have an event, we analyze what took place, where the vulnerability was, and can that vulnerability be mitigated in some fashion?” he said.
Reviewing safety standards also provides an opportunity for school leaders to consider new technology and receive feedback on how standards are being implemented, he said.
Last year, Bliesner helped the state of Idaho review the circumstances surrounding a May 2021 shooting at a middle school that left two students and one staff member wounded.
Among the lessons learned from that event was the importance of continually reassessing how school facilities are being used, Bliesner said. When the shooting occurred, a set of modular classrooms once used by the middle school were occupied by high school students. Those students didn’t receive a lockdown notification because the portable classrooms weren’t connected to the middle school’s public address system, Bliesner said.
“Security is a journey,” he said. “It’s not a destination. And every event that takes place … we reaffirm something we already knew that we didn’t do, or we learn something new that we should do.”