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Sen. Blumenthal Tours NBHS Security Measures

U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., made a stop at New Britain High School on Wednesday as he makes a push in Washington for lawmakers to authorize money for school security measures and mental health initiatives.

Blumenthal toured the high school with members of the Board of Education, the police chief, and several school administrators. After viewing the school’s security room where he saw a staff member pouring over the school’s 107 surveillance cameras—much of which has been in place for over a decade—Blumenthal called the school’s security features “impressive.”

New Britain High School is among the largest high schools in the state with 2,364 students.

In recent weeks, Blumenthal has visited several other high schools, including those in Middletown, Bristol, and Manchester in the wake of the school shootings in Newtown. He is backing a bill that would authorize $40 million to be given to schools across the country through grants aimed at making safety improvements. The money could be spent on everything from lighting and camera upgrades to teacher emergency training and mental health initiatives.

“Everybody, regardless of their party, can agree that we should make our schools safer,” Blumenthal said.

While the high school has a bullet-proof glass vestibule where visitors are screened, two full-time school resource officers, security personnel, a system that performs background searches of visitors, and an extensive camera system, school officials are considering other measures, like purchasing “panic buttons” for each of the city’s 15 schools. They cost about $1,500 each.

Assistant Superintendent of Schools Paul Salina said officials are also looking at improving sight lines near the front offices of several buildings so secretaries can have a better view of visitors. Salina said he welcomed Blumenthal’s visit and said federal dollars would be “helpful” in moving forward with upgrades.

Other city schools also have camera systems, similar safety protocols for screening visitors, and undergo annual security assessments by the Police Department. Each school also has 10 safety drills each year, two of which are for emergency lockdown situations.

Immediately after the Newton shootings, Salina said officials reviewed emergency protocols with staff, such as making sure doors are locked, and heard a presentation from emergency personnel on security measures. Officials are satisfied with what measures are in place, he said.

“By far, we are pretty well advanced,” Salina said. “Are there always room for improvements? Of course.”

A former federal program, called Secure our Schools, was put in place in 2000. The matching grant program provided $1.15 million in funding for Connecticut school safety improvements, but no money remains.

Under the renewal of the Secure our Schools act, money would be doled out over 10 years and could be used for new initiatives, like the creation “school security tip lines,” and the addition of better lights, alarms, and door locks. The law would also spur the creation of a Department of Justice and Department of Education task force that would develop school safety guidelines for school districts, according to the senator’s office.

“This program should provide more resources, but not make decisions, those decisions should be made locally,” Blumenthal said.

Board of Education President Sharon Beloin-Saavedra called the high school’s security features “top notch,” and said officials must be careful when considering adding more safety measures. “You can make a building Fort Knox,” she said, but you don’t want students “to be imprisoned in their environment.”

“Kids still have to be kids,” Beloin-Saavedra said.

Beloin-Saavedra said more money must go towards opening school-based health centers, where students can get medical, dental, and behavioral services. Those centers are currently in three schools and are widely used by students, she said.

Blumenthal agreed, saying he’s pushing for more funding to go towards mental issues, such as treating and detecting problems early, otherwise they fester and build. He’s calling the package “mental health first aid.” It would provide additional funding to counselors, teachers, and administrators to get training to better detect when a student is coping with an issue and help direct them to support services.

“The counseling, when it works, does wonders,” Blumenthal said.

Police Chief James Wardwell agreed with Blumenthal that greater amounts of school resources officers should be placed into buildings. The officers are trained in de-escalation techniques to help troubled students.

The high school’s security system has 92 cameras inside the building and 15 outside. When a door is opened, a sensor sends an alert to the security center that is constantly monitored by a staff member. There are also emergency call boxes throughout the school. When a button is pressed, a signal is sent to the command center and must be answered within 30 seconds, otherwise it transfers to the Police Department.

The camera system records 24 hours a day, so situations that arise during the night or on the weekend can be reviewed. The control center at the high school also has a monitor that shows each of the other 14 city schools. Officials are hoping to have those video streams available in the Police Department’s dispatch center.

During the visit, officials visited several classrooms. In one room, Blumenthal asked how many students would support a ban on assault weapons. The majority of the hands in the room went up. Beloin-Saavedra followed by asking how many students would support universal background checks. Even more hands went up.