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UPDATED: Newtown Helps Preserve Valuable Crisis Drills in Schools

Posted on March 19, 2024


HARTFORD- On Monday March 18th, State Reps. Mitch Bolinsky (R-106) and Martin Foncello (R-107) hailed the decision by the Education Committee leadership to strike two controversial sections in a bill that would have reduced the number of student crisis drills in schools from the current state standard requiring three per school year, to just one student-participating drill per school year. Both legislators led the charge in eliminating the proposed sections, with the support of State Senator Tony Hwang, and strong, persuasive testimony from Newtown’s leadership team, First Selectman Jeffrey Capeci, Newtown Police Chief David Kullgren and Newtown School Superintendent Christopher Melillo, all of whom emphasized the value of preparedness and familiarity, with the goal of achieving a more orderly response in crisis threat events, among students, teachers and staff in schools.  Also discussed was the benefit of having such drills integrated with public safety personnel, to produce less potential for student trauma, with the familiarity of periodic repetition.

The legislation, HB-5416, (secs. 4&5), An Act Concerning Various Revisions to the Education Statutes would have changed state policy prior to the completion of an in-process State Department of Education (SDE) study and full examination of crisis drills.  The study came about as a result of a negotiated compromise forced in 2023 by Newtown’s State Delegation before the 2023 bill was called for a vote in the Senate. a prior attempt by the bill’s proponents to similarly restructure statutorily-required crisis drills in our state, as written into law as part of a comprehensive set of new regulations set in-motion in 2013 by the school-safety subcommittee of Connecticut’s Sandy Hook Task force, and instead seek to reduce crisis drills for public school students from current school safety statutes from one every three months in school-year, or from three, to one per year, with a second, staff-only drill.  The bill also called for public notification.

With the crisis drill section deleted from the legislation, both Bolinsky and Foncello were able to support the remaining sections of the “technical revisions bill”, thereby advancing its other policy out of the Education Committee.  Before passage, Bolinsky spoke in-committee, expressing relief that the crisis-drill restructure sections of the bill were gone, and to acknowledge Newtown’s leaders for their fast response to the hastily advanced proposal to which he had expressed “grave concerns”.  He went on to reiterate his disappointment that this bill had been pursued over two session-years, despite strong, repeated objections by the Newtown delegation, and, in particular, by him, as a long-serving member of the committee, and representative of the Connecticut town that actually knows a thing or two about the importance of these drills.

Rep. Bolinsky reflected, “While I am very thankful to the committee that this proposal is off the table for the second time in two-years, I’m very, very concerned about why it was here in the first place, how it reappeared so quietly, and the way it seemed to have been hidden in a large, unrelated Committee Bill.  Last year and this year, each time the bill’s proponent brought it forward, I pointedly asked where this concept originated, and if Newtown officials had been engaged in the process.  Each time, I was told “We have Newtown’’s support”.  Puzzled by that answer, it only took three phone calls to determine that statement to be untrue.  Pressing forward, I asked committee leadership and the bill’s proponent “If not Newtown’s leadership and subject-matter experts, to whom were the references of “Newtown’s support” referring?”  No answers – again, and again, and again.  I’d still like an answer, and to know why the proponents seem so dedicated to taking these drills out of the hands of professional stakeholders who’ve worked for eleven-plus years on establishing the best-practices behind these drills, not to mention the ways our delegation’s very loudly expressed concerns were being brushed-off.  Considering last-year’s bill actually went down to the wire in the Senate and may have become reality if not for the efforts of Senator Hwang, and that it ended with an agreement to back-off until the SDE study was completed, I find it shocking that this terrible proposal could be rushed through leadership screening, only to be discovered Friday afternoon, March 8th, on a public-hearing agenda to be heard at 10:00am, Monday, March 11, 2024.  Not much time to mount a defense, but my enduring thanks go to Newtown Leadership for coming to the rescue.” 

“Training plays a crucial role in enhancing school security. I asked to see this bill amended to require the advice of subject matter experts at the US Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice (DOJ)/Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) be followed to ensure that we can protect the lives of our students and teachers,” said Foncello. “The Federal agencies recommend that the drills be conducted monthly so that student responses will become second nature to them. Students will also master the skills required to protect themselves in an emergency and come to appreciate the work being done by the First Responders and understand that they are there to help ensure their safety,” added Foncello.

Last week, in testimony, Newtown came out in full force, and the Commissioner of Education came to attest her opposition.

Newtown Chief of Police David Kullgren testified at the public hearing: ‘Communities are different from one another and there are vast differences from grade to grade. Any restriction on training will reduce the likelihood of the survival of our staff and students. This decision should be left up to individual communities.”

Both Newtown First Selectman Jeffrey Capeci and Newtown School Superintendent Christopher Melillo echoed Chief Kullgren opposition to limiting Newtown’s ability to have school crisis drills.

Written testimony was also hurried for submission by Former Newtown First Selectman, E. Patricia Llodra, a long-time Sandy Hook resident, former educator and school administrator, and the town’s CEO from 2009 to 2017.  Her testimony included: “There is no doubt that planning and preparation is essential in crisis response.  Readiness requires practice… Newtown certainly knows and understands crisis situations. Our first-hand experience of 2012 has informed our practice well… Our crisis plans and drills emanate from our experience and from what we know is best practice.”

The Commissioner State Department of Education Charlene M. Russell-Tucker submitted testimony stating, “This section…. removes the review and evaluation of such drills by local public safety officials. We believe that local public safety officials’ review of the results is critical to make improvements as necessary…. We believe that working together with the Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection (DESPP) and our schools, we can continue to address the emotional well-being of all students through trauma-informed practices. Broadcasting that Connecticut schools do not prepare for gun violence in schools or other threats inside of school buildings, however, is potentially very dangerous. Additionally, such broad changes to the scope of emergency drills in schools, the development and implementation of guidance on such drills, and the subsequent revisions to School Security and Safety Plans, will need additional time to implement. We respectfully request that the implementation begin with the school year beginning July 1, 2025.”

Also submitting testimony were Newtown Board of Education member Donald Ramsey and several members of the public saying ‘Safety protocols should not be modified at this time because our Superintendent and Chief of Police have not been consulted here in Newtown. Muscle memory is paramount; therefore, students and staff should practice various drills with existing frequency without modification to the laws governing such things at this time.’