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A new school safety center hopes to prevent another Sandy Hook

Manchester Public Schools communications director Jim Farrell uses a speaker with a camera at the secure entryway to Verplanck Elementary School in Manchester, Connecticut, Feb. 24, 2022.
Joe Amon
Connecticut Public
Manchester Public Schools communications director Jim Farrell uses a speaker with a camera at the secure entryway to Verplanck Elementary School in Manchester, Connecticut, Feb. 24, 2022.

As we approach the tenth anniversary of the December 12, 2022 Sandy Hook Massacre, a state funded program has opened to help schools statewide try to avoid a repeat of that tragedy and to cope should another crisis occur.

Last month was the debut of the Connecticut Center for School Safety and Crisis Preparation at Western Connecticut State University in Danbury.

Amery E. Bernhardt is the program's Director. He spoke on Connecticut Public Radio's "All Things Considered" to talk about the center's efforts to hire enough staff to consult with school safety personnel all over the state.

Below is a partial transcript of the conversation:

John Henry Smith: For Connecticut Public Radio, I'm John Henry Smith. We are approaching the terrible 10 year anniversary of the Sandy Hook massacre. And in the years since the occurrence of school shootings has continued unabated it seems in this country. That fact punctuated by the shootings in Uvalde, Texas this past summer. To make sure Connecticut schools are ready to respond to the next crisis situation last month. It was the debut of the Connecticut Center for School Safety and crisis preparation at Western Connecticut State University in Danbury, the director of that center is Dr. Amery Bernhard, he joins us now tell us what the center is, please.

Amery E. Bernhardt: Basically, it's a university level center that was formed from the Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection. And the mission pretty much focuses on school safety school crisis, providing resources to schools throughout the entire state of Connecticut. And we want to really focus on research, training, providing technical assistance, and making sure that we can develop student resilience and handle school crises, school trauma and any other related thing to school safety. One of the areas that I am, I am pushing forward on which I'm not there yet, so maybe I'll wait on it. But the whole idea of the digital Threat Assessment world, this is definitely an area that I really want to start focusing on. Because all of a majority of students communicate via social media, they leave a fingerprint via social media, if there's things that are concerning them, even threats, or even if you look at things like depression, suicidal behavior, those kinds of things, having a good grasp of their communication network is huge for us. And that's an area I want to work on. But I'm still opening, I'm just starting again, I'm just starting to build the center, that's an area I definitely want to start focusing on is how we can help schools to capture that digital digital fingerprint that students leave so we can get them help or interventions when it's necessary.

John Henry Smith: Have you had a chance to train any schools in the area thus far?

Amery E. Bernhardt: So we offer this training when I first came on in I started in January, we offered it February, March, April, and may offer one training per month, we trained about 200 or so professionals from the schools throughout the state, about 75 different schools and law enforcement agencies attended the train.

John Henry Smith: But when you say professionals Now you talk was your training directed at first responders? Or was it directed at say, teachers and staff?

Amery E. Bernhardt: So any of the professionals that work in school safety, it could be faculty, it could be administration, it could be mental health professionals, it could be law enforcement. So I use professionalism in the broad sense that any school safety or any school professional, we would train, but one of the main focuses of this school threat assessment team is to assess threats, to refer them to monitor them and provide support for mitigation. It's a violence prevention strategy

John Henry Smith: Is really the focus of your program to keep the violence from happening or responding properly once the violence happens?

Amery E. Bernhardt: So the focus of the program is everything related to school safety. So you have you know, protection, mitigation, response, recovery, and prevention is right in a right in their right in the beginning, preventing those act of violence. So the whole broad spectrum of emergency management, I would say is what our goal is, we'd love to focus on prevention, because that is that is key right there. If you can prevent these from ever happening. That's, that's the that's our goal. However, we understand that there are emergencies that do happen. So that's why you have to have other things in place, such as protection, mitigation strategies, make sure your response strategies are there. And then recovery.

John Henry Smith: Could you talk about one or two? I want to two areas where we have all learned from the spate of mass shootings that we that have occurred, even before you've already have you bought in before Sandy Hook and up to now what have we learned that you're applying and you're teaching others how to how to, to use to respond to these situations.

Amery E. Bernhardt: One of the things that we learned and we continue to see this is the idea that a lot of these mass attacks, if that's what we're focusing on here for this, but again, school safety is fairly broad. So we want to cover everything. There's a pathway to violence and the ideation they have a grievance, they start planning, they start preparing, and then they attack during that time there's leakage. And there's numerous studies out there some are showing 100% leakage others are showing a high percentage of leakage when I say leakage, those are intent to carry out and attack somebody poses a threat, whether they post something on social media, whether they told a friend or told appear or told them their classmates or whoever the attacker was. There is information that It comes out early, and the signs are there. So one of the big things we try to capitalize on is have a system in place to capture the information, and then have a process. So a team can successfully vet that threat and intervene before it gets to the act of violence.

John Henry Smith: Now, in terms of after the violence happens, what are some of the things we've learned that you're applying now and teaching?

Amery E. Bernhardt: So one of the big programs we're trying to launch now is actually called our beyond compliance series. And what we're doing is we're taking all aspects of school safety, not just active attack, but it could be a mental health crisis. Maybe there was a death in the school. It could be a cyber attack to your school. There's a myriad of different annexes that the Connecticut State Division Division of Emergency Management, homeland security requires, these plans have these annexes that cover all these different hazards and all hazards approach. So one of the areas we're trying to focus on is, is your plan up to speed. And what we like to do is every month offer a basic bite sized piece of training to give them a scenario related to a different topic. Again, active attack could be one of them. However, our first one coming up in September is a mental health crisis. So the team members of that school will be given a scenario, they'll be given some best practices, and then they'll be able to work their emergency operation plan through those scenarios. And then we can come back and after action and see how we can make that plan better. So that's one of the things we're really trying to roll out is you have the plan, that's your preparation. How does the plan respond to the actual different scenarios when you can line up to scenarios? I think that's key, you can actually tabletop it with the key players who are going to be implementing the plan, and then that follow up after action? What are the next steps to make your plan and your training stronger?

John Henry Smith: In the wake of the shootings there have been so many suggestions from all corners of America of the world of what should be done? Should we arm teachers? Should we have more police in schools, should we lock the doors or other solutions that have come through I mean, so you hear these solutions, what solutions ring true to you as solutions that make sense. And which ones make you tear your hair out?

Amery E. Bernhardt: I would say there's a lot of basic recommendations that I would just go right to the state, the state has a Division of Emergency Management, Homeland Security, who has a template for emergency operation plans. And they have a lot of the basics right in there about what to call different protocols called Make sure you're on the same page with communication, make sure you follow your plan when it comes to whether it be a lockout, or a secure the school were on lockdown. There's all again, different terminology, I would keep the terminology on the same page, I would follow the recommendations that it's a secure building, open doors, prop doors, those are security breaches, when it comes to other issues that get more complicated about arming teachers, you know, different areas like that, as a center, we don't really necessarily take a stance on what protocols a school is going to implement. A lot of those have to do with I believe the community and the area that you're in. And we just want to make sure that you're as safe as possible. So some of the stuff which has research on it, some of it does not have research on it, I think it's intelligent to go with whatever you can find research on. However, some of these studies have a very small sample size. So you're making practices and you're making generalizations out of a limited amount of data. So again, sometimes Best Practices comes into play. So we're not going to come out and give a strong stance on you know, whether you should arm teachers or not arm teachers, what we're going to say is when you come up with your decisions as a community, we're going to be there to support you and help you find the best way to keep your your school secure. Whatever decision you made on that.

John Henry Smith is Connecticut Public’s host of All Things Considered, its flagship afternoon news program. He's proud to be a part of the team that won a regional Emmy Award for The Vote: A Connecticut Conversation. In his 21st year as a professional broadcaster, he’s covered both news and sports.

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