Parents and police assist Catholic schools with security

Stratford CT Oct 4 2013 As Stratford Public Schools is making security upgrade changes at school buildings with supplementary funds from the town and grants from the state to potentially delay a would-be intruder, Stratford’s two Catholic schools have made similar upgrades with their own fund raising.
St. Mark School on Wigwam Road has spent about $65,000 on security upgrades from monies raised from special events and private donations, according to
Principal Gene Holmes. The school has 225 students in prekindergarten through eighth grade.

The improvements began in January, shortly after the massacre at nearby Sandy Hook Elementary School, last Dec. 14.

Steel doors have replaced glass doors at the school entrances, Holmes said, and a thick but translucent polyethylene film has been applied to the school’s windows to hold the glass together even if penetrated by gunfire. This is designed to thwart entering the school through a window.

Holmes said that one of his goals with the security upgrades was to avoid creating a prison-like appearance to the school. He agreed with Stratford Public Schools Superintendent Janet Robinson, who has told The Star that a primary purpose of security upgrades is to delay an intruder and improve notification to police so their response time is as quick as can be.

Stratford officials, including Mayor John Harkins, police Chief Patrick Ridenhour and Lt. Melissa Niemiec, have visited St. Mark and consulted with Holmes numerous times, the principal said, and he understands that police “response time to any school in Stratford is about one and a half minutes.”
Other hardware upgrades made at St. Mark include installation of 13 cameras and new buzzers at the eight entrances.

Holmes said the school conducts lockdown drills once a month and separate evacuation drills, also once a month. With police consultation and a committee of volunteer parents, the school has refined its emergency plans, including cutting paths at the perimeter of the property, so that children who might be outdoors during an emergency have an easy exit off the property.

School leaders have had to take on “a whole different mind-set” regarding potential violence at St. Mark, Holmes said, where “in five years here I have not had to break up one fistfight.”

At St. James School on Main Street, which has 350 students prekindergarden through eighth grade, parents have raised and spent about $40,000 on 24 security cameras with a wider scope than previous cameras indoors and outdoors, walkie-talkies for teachers who may be outdoors with students, and improved entrance buzzers and internal phone communications. The entrance doors there already are steel with just small windows.

Principal James Gieryng said that he, too, has had the benefit of Stratford police consultation, and Lt. Niemiec had been monitoring the school’s “intruder drills” that occur monthly.

Gieryng said he also gets assistance from parent volunteers who have various types of security- or building-related professional skills.

The amount of advance notice given to the students about an upcoming emergency drill now varies, Gieryng said. At the beginning of the year, he said, he lets students know the hour of a drill. In subsequent months he will advise only the day to expect a drill, and toward the end of the school year he will announce only the week when a drill will occur.

“It scares the kids,” Gieryng said, “but you can hear a pin drop” during the drills. “The consciousness of what we are doing is a lot better.”

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