Many Connecticut school districts haven’t filed required safety reports
Since the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, Connecticut school districts have been required to file annual two-page reports indicating they have conducted lockdown drills — but more than a dozen districts have failed to file the report even once.
After the massacre that claimed the lives of 26 people, including 20 first-grade children, state legislators created a School Security and Safety Program that, among other things, requires the state’s roughly 200 school districts to file annual security plans and also mandates annual “crisis management” drills, better known as lockdown drills.
The law requires school districts to submit a comprehensive security plan for all of their schools by Nov. 1 and a two-page lockdown drill report by July 1 every year. The lockdown drill report indicates when the drills took place and whether emergency protocols were followed.
But records obtained by The Connecticut Mirror show that 16 school districts did not turn in school safety plans this year, and while lockdown drill reports aren’t due until July 1, state officials acknowledged that 16 districts have never submitted a lockdown drill report since the law went into effect nine years ago.
State officials wouldn’t say whether the 16 districts that haven’t turned in safety plans this year are the same districts that haven’t filed lockdown drill reports.
Officials declined CT Mirror’s request to identify the school districts that haven’t complied with either law, citing security concerns.
“I just can’t expose or potentially expose or potentially make the schools that have not complied targets,” said state Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection Commissioner James Rovella. “I’d be compromising their security in some fashion.”
But in light of another mass shooting at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, on May 24, Rovella expressed frustration that school districts haven’t complied with the law while also pointing out there really isn’t any recourse he can take.
“I’m not happy that these folks haven’t submitted their security plans or drill plans, but we’re after these folks all of the time,” Rovella said. “I think that gives us a renewed opportunity. I’ve touched base with the commissioner of education about this, and she’s not happy either.”
Rovella said he doesn’t know if the districts that have never submitted lockdown drill reports just aren’t bothering with the paperwork or aren’t doing them at all. But, Rovella said, it’s hard to compel districts to comply because the law has no teeth.
“Do we want to go out and bite people?” Rovella said. “No, we want to have them comply because they want to comply, because it shows they’re invested into realizing that their kids, our kids, are the most important asset we have in life.”
‘Too much is almost never enough’
The legislation that required the safety plans and reports also established a funding program so schools could increase security. But while many districts took advantage of the funding, it was out of reach for others.
The program called for local school boards to match a percentage of what the state was paying in order to receive any funding.
Some districts, particularly smaller ones, didn't have the funds available to provide the required match.
An analysis of the grants the state has awarded shows there is a handful of school districts that have received no money. Many of them are smaller districts that feed into regional high schools and have only elementary schools in their districts.
For many, the local match of the state funds is the prohibitive factor.
Union Superintendent Steve Jackopsic said for his small district of only one elementary school, the matching funds required to get a grant are too much. Union is the smallest school district in the state, with roughly 50 students.
"Our whole school budget is about $2 million, so for us to take even $20,000 from that to match a state grant is a lot of money," Jackopsic said. He said he just finished an application for a separate school security grant program funded through the federal government that provides full reimbursement to the community.
Putnam, which has its own high school, is one of the larger communities that hasn’t received any state funding.
Putnam Superintendent of Schools Daniel Sullivan III said the district considered submitting an application for the state funding last year, but it decided against it because the board of education realized it couldn't come up with the matching funds.
The district considered adding more security cameras and film that could be applied to windows so that people can't see inside. Those would have improved the safety measures the schools already have in place, like classrooms that can lock from the inside, Sullivan said.
"We have security infrastructure, but the incidents of the last week, if not the past years, is a reminder that too much is almost never enough," Sullivan said.
Overall, the state has given out 319 grants to school districts since the program was initiated for a total of about $71 million, according to state Division of Emergency Management and Homeland Security records.
Those grants have funded nearly 1,700 individual school building projects overall. Those numbers include grants to private schools as well, according to Brenda Bergeron, deputy commissioner of the Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection.
In the first year, 112 security grants were approved and more than $21 million was handed out for security upgrades. The second year, there were 80 grants and $18 million spent.
Bergeron said the school security grant program has never stopped and "from 2013 to today, the program has been continually up and running," although the state legislature funded the program only during five years.
"Since it is a reimbursement program, each funding year has a multi-year period of performance and projects can be submitted that are retroactive back to 2013," Bergeron said. "So even in the years when 'new' funding was not allocated, projects covered under other rounds of funding were still being implemented."
In 2021, there were 28 grants approved and $4.9 million disbursed. Bergeron said there was an additional $5 million earmarked specifically for projects that improve communication between schools and the local law enforcement agency that services them, whether it be local or state police.
"With regard to 2021, $10 million was again allocated to this school security grant program and $5 million was allocated to the 'traditional' school security projects — of that $5 million ... has been awarded," Bergeron said. "It is a continuous process, we are always working through the different projects under the competitive grant program."
"The second $5 million allocated in 2021 is also for school security," Bergeron said. "The focus of this funding, known as the multi-media school security grant program, is on infrastructure that will enhance real time communications between schools and law enforcement."
Kenneth Trump, a nationally known school security expert who operates National School Safety and Security Services out of Cleveland, said it's common for lawmakers to immediately provide funding after a mass shooting and then for interest in that program to wane as the years pass, and in many cases the funding doesn't meet the need.
“It sounds great when the state says they are putting $10 million or $20 million into school security, but when you have to parse that out to schools all over the state, that’s really peanuts,” Trump said.
Trump said superintendents and school officials are bombarded now by contractors promising the latest in security measures, whether it be fingerprint-only access keypads to school doors or expensive metal detectors.
“One of the immediate actions after a school shooting is to throw money at target hardening, but you can’t just rely on that, because that might be a quick political fix that shows you are doing something, but the follow-through sometimes isn’t there,” Trump said.
Trump does security analysis for districts all over the country, and “I can’t tell you how many times I got to a school that put 10 security cameras in, and a few years later, four of them aren’t working, and the district has no money to fix them,” he said.
Trump was hired by Newtown officials after the Sandy Hook shooting as an expert when a lawsuit was filed against the school by a few parents whose children died in one of the classrooms. The lawsuit, which questioned whether the school was properly prepared for a school shooter, was eventually dismissed.
“I walked through that school before it was demolished, and I thought what they had in place was reasonable, and their principal was a step ahead of most on security at that time,” Trump said. “But part of what’s missing in many school districts today is how do you deal with the unknowns or things you can’t plan for.”
Trump said the most recent school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, is eerily similar to Sandy Hook.
The shooter entered through a back door that had originally been opened by a teacher, who authorities now say closed it when she realized the shooter was outside. However, the door didn’t lock, and the shooter walked right in, according to recent national news reports.
“So what was the issue there? Trump asked, adding, “Was the door supposed to lock automatically and didn’t because it wasn’t working, or was the teacher supposed to manually try to lock the door while a shooter was approaching?”
“Think of all the schools across the country that don’t have air conditioning, and someone opens a gymnasium door because it’s too hot, and now you have an opening for a shooter,” he said.
When Trump does school security training with staff, the first thing he does is have them close their eyes and try to tell him where the nearest fire extinguisher to their room is. Many people can’t answer that, even though they walk by it every day.
Trump preaches “situational awareness,” which he defines as, "What is supposed to be there and what is not?"
He also emphasizes "pattern recognition" — for example, Trump said, is there a stranger on campus or someone who shouldn’t be in the parking lot? Or "is a kid suddenly being isolated at recess?”
Too much firepower
Many Connecticut school districts have received multiple grants, according to the data provided by DESPP. For example, New Haven has received five grants totaling nearly $5.6 million.
Many other mid-size school districts have also taken advantage of the program. Cheshire has also received five grants totaling $1.7 million, records show.
“We have tried to approach security from a different perspective and not just about hardening of the schools, because, let’s face it, someone with an AR-15 is probably going to eventually shoot through that door with that level of firepower,” said Cheshire Superintendent of Schools Jeffrey Solan.
Cheshire has partnered with a retired FBI agent who lives in town to hold seminars with teachers and staff on how to recognize students who may need help or to recognize when something is off within or around a school.
“Bulletproof glass doesn’t prevent deaths, it just minimizes them, but if you invest in mental health, maybe you can prevent it from happening in the first place,” Solan said. “What the town has done is take the money the state has provided and reinvest it on more security goals.”
Overall, the town has spent nearly $5 million, including the state funding, on security upgrades.