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Weston Schools Superintendent Colleen Palmer: Safety is key issue for 2013

Superintendent Colleen Palmer said the schools are looking at things through a new lens. —Patricia Gay photo

What a difference a week makes.

If an interview with Schools Superintendent Colleen Palmer had taken place at the beginning of December it would have been quite different from the one The Forum had with her on Wednesday, Dec. 19.

That interview — for this story — was supposed to be about the year ahead for the Weston public schools. Some of the topics to be discussed were the transition of South House back to classroom space at Hurlbutt Elementary School, the AIM program, standardized test results and expectations, declining enrollment, the upcoming budget, and how Dr. Palmer’s first year as Weston’s superintendent had gone.

But on Dec. 19, just five days after the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, there was only one thing on the superintendent’s mind — safety.

The Sandy Hook tragedy hit everyone hard, including Dr. Palmer. She was superintendent just 18 months ago in Monroe when the Chalk Hill Middle School was closed because of declining enrollment there. That empty school will now be used by the Sandy Hook Elementary School students while their school is closed.

Change in priorities

The change in Dr. Palmer’s priorities became readily apparent at a Weston Board of Education meeting on Dec. 17. The board had intended to vote on a proposal to allocate space in the North House building at Hurlbutt Elementary School to the town for its use.

But Dr. Palmer asked the board to table the vote indefinitely, and board members unanimously agreed.

“As we think about Newtown, our hearts have been broken. We sit here tonight and say it could have been any of us,” Dr. Palmer said before the vote.

At that same meeting, Dr. Palmer asked Weston police Chief John Troxell to assign a patrol officer to monitor School Road, where all Weston public schools are located, during school operating hours. She also said the schools would be hiring security officers for each school — unarmed personnel to handle visitor identification checks and security matters.

On Dec. 19, the district listed on its website, westonps.org, job openings for four new security aides, one for each school.

The Police Commission in turn requested three new police officers in its 2013-14 proposed budget — one for regular police patrol, one for School Road, and a school resource officer contingent on approval by the school board, which is researching the position.

The new normal

Dr. Palmer said the tragedy at Sandy Hook, where a lone gunman shot through the school’s locked door and killed 26 people, requires schools to look at things through a new lens.

“In light of Friday, how do we define the new normal?” she said.

She said the immediate focus is on heightening the level of security at Weston schools without turning them into fortresses.

“Schools should be the future for our community. Schools still have doors and windows but need constant vigilance. That’s why I asked for the Weston police to be on School Road every day,” she said.

The schools will look at the efficient use of their resources and will also review bus and playground security policies, Dr. Palmer said.

She hopes an added police presence on School Road and security aides in the schools will serve as a deterrent and minimize a potential catastrophe. “There is a new normal for students, faculty and administrators,” she said.

Back on track

Dr. Palmer’s ultimate goal is to get the education process back on track as quickly as possible. “It will be difficult to focus on education if everyone is focusing on their safety,” she said.

The schools are also going to review security policies for after-school events, such as concerts, plays and sports.

“There are a huge number of after-school programs where the public is involved. We’re not going to stop being a school system,” Dr. Palmer said.

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