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Norwalk Works Together To Build 'Culture Of Safety' In Schools

Norwalk Fire Chief Denis McCarthy and Police Chief Thomas Kulhawik discuss new school safety plans at City Hall Thursday. Photo Credit: Greg Canuel
Norwalk Mayor Harry Rilling and Schools Superintendent Manuel Rivera talk about the city's plans to continue to improve school security. Photo Credit: Greg Canuel

NORWALK, Conn. – Norwalk’s schools have made many safety improvements in the past year, and the city’s emergency management team believes its plans will do more than prevent only once-in-a-lifetime disasters.

“Our goal is not to deal with the rare, very tragic outcomes from school violence, although that was a big part of it,” Fire Chief Denis McCarthy said at a meeting Thursday. “We wanted to make sure that our efforts made schools safer in every day for every member of the school community.”

Norwalk’s Common Council approved $500,000 in funding for school security improvements to go with $100,000 given to the schools last year. That money will replace 1,100 locks on classrooms, offices and common areas across the district. It will also pay for school-specific repairs identified by the Norwalk Police over the last year.

But many of the school security improvements have come from training staff and students in new safety plans for dealing with emergencies, department leaders said.

“This is really about creating a culture of safety in our schools,” Superintendent Manuel Rivera said. “Year ago…the prior attention was fire drills. Today it really is about teaching certain life skills.”

All schools have plans for four scenarios. A “lockdown” would go into effect when a threat is in a school and it is not safe to move between classrooms. “Lockouts” are for when a danger is outside a school building. Traditional fire drills would fall into “evacuation” plans, for when students and teachers need to leave the building. The final category, “shelter in place,” is generally for unsafe weather outside, such as tornadoes or hurricanes, McCarthy said.

The system is the same for all Norwalk public schools, so responding police officers and firefighters also know the procedures when responding to emergencies. All police and fire vehicles also now have maps of entrances and exits of all Norwalk schools, so they can plan better.

School and safety leaders are also teaching students and staff good safety habits, such as being aware of their surroundings and reporting anything suspicious. The panel compared the new skills to the old “stop, drop and roll” drill, as something that kids will learn as students and know for the rest of their lives.

“This is isn’t something that is only going to be applicable Monday through Friday in school,” Police Chief Thomas Kulhawik said. “This is going to be 24/7 for the rest of someone’s life, and hopefully these skills are going to be built upon over time.”

The preparation extends to parents, too, Rivera said. In emergencies, parents are told to not come to schools unless asked to come via official channels. The added cars and people can cause safety hazards in emergency situations.

To help with this, the city is working to improve its communication system to get information out to parents. The district plans to implement a text-messaging service to go with its electronic calls. Staff members are working on a “reunification plan” to help parents find their kids after emergencies.

Norwalk police and fire, the school district and other emergency responders will conduct a “tabletop drill” later in the school year to see whether they are ready for a major emergency. In the meantime, they all plan to continue updating the security plan as “a living document.”

“We know you can’t plan or stop every possible incident, but you certainly can do everything possible to minimize and mitigate the chance of something happening,” Mayor Harry Rilling said.

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