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DANBURY WCSU lockdown revealed communication gaps

November 29, 2018

DANBURY — Public school and city officials are making some minor changes to the way they communicate during their response to an active shooter after a suspected incident at Western Connecticut State University prompted lockdowns across the city last week.

No shots were fired and no one was hurt in the apparent false alarm, but the heavily armed police response and corresponding shelter-in-place notices to nearby public schools did reveal a series of issues administrators might not have considered otherwise, they said this week.

From now on, a police officer will be stationed with Superintendent Sal Pascarella during emergency situations to keep district staff in immediate contact with the police command on the scene.

Because of the timing of last week’s lockdowns — just before elementary and middle schools let out for the day — district and police officials also are coordinating plans for buses, non-staff at those schools and more precise parent notifications.

“If you go to a building and your child’s in that building, the board of ed, Sal, is not in charge,” Pascarella said. “The police are, in this case it was the state police, in charge. We’ve got to communicate better and this is a better way of communicating in the future.”

Overall, officials have said the emergency response to the reported active shooter at WCSU’s westside campus went off without any major problems. When the WCSU campus went on lockdown, so too did the nearby Westside Middle School Academy and the Western CT Academy for International Studies located at the back of the WCSU westside campus.

Mayor Mark Boughton and Danbury Police Chief Patrick Ridenhour coordinated from the scene by cell phone with Pascarella, who was overseeing the district’s response from their administrative offices across town. But that meant they were playing phone tag as updates unfolded, instead of staying in constant contact.

They have agreed that, should another similar situation occur, an officer will deploy to Pascarella’s office so that he is in direct radio contact with the chief, mayor and other police officials on the scene — such as state police or the FBI, who responded last week.

“God forbid we do it in the future, there’s a different communication protocol so that we’re all getting informed,” Pascarella told members of the school board. “The way it was, we were all getting informed at different times.”

The specific timing of the lockdowns also highlighted the need for a backup plan for what to do should students already be on buses dismissing when a situation occurs, district officials said.

Bus company, district and police leaders are planning for certain safe staging areas where buses with children could go instead of the school itself. The district could then push robocalls to parents relaying where specific buses would be so they could link up with their children, Director of Pupil Personnel Services Kelly Truchsess said.

The district also plans to apply for up to $800,000 in state grant funding next month for security upgrades to as many as 17 of its school buildings, from secure vestibules to camera upgrades, district Finance Director Joe Martino said.

All things considered, AIS staff did a “phenomenal job” during the WCSU incident last week, said Tricia Robinson, a parent and president of the school’s parent-teacher organization.

“I never imagined that twice in year I’d have to have my kids in lock down and it is the scariest thing as a parent to have to even consider,” Robinson said. “I’m so thankful that the staff and leadership of our school made every parent and every child feel as safe as they could in a really horrible situation.”

zach.murdock@hearstmediact.com

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