HARTFORD, Conn. -- Five years ago, the world was stunned by a crime unprecedented in its horror -- the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School that took the lives of 20 first-graders and six adults.
State legislators reacted to the massacre not only by enacting tougher gun laws but also by earmarking millions to make Connecticut schools safer, including addressing concerns raised after the shooting about access to school buildings, communication failures and multi-agency coordination gaps.
But now a Courant investigation has found that those efforts, started when the pain of Sandy Hook was fresh, have largely dwindled.
Nearly half the school districts in the state are violating at least some aspect of the law requiring them to submit school security information, a Courant review of state records reveals.
For instance, one of the key regulations requires districts to submit what is known as a School Security and Safety Plan, a 30-page document developed by the Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection, each September to that agency. But state records show that nearly 100 school districts haven't submitted a plan this year and nearly 60 haven't submitted a plan in at least two years.
The security plan is not the only requirement schools have failed to follow, records show.
District also must submit records of all fire drills or crisis management drills, also known as lockdown drills, to DESPP by July 1. But for the last school year, only 52 school districts, barely 25 percent of the state, submitted the records -- a two-page sheet detailing when and where drills were held that is signed by a local fire or police official.
"It's shocking that within a year or two of the worst school tragedy in history that it would all be forgotten," school security expert Thomas Dillon said.
Security experts said the numbers of school districts not complying with the law is stunning.
Dillon is a former Wethersfield police officer who has started his own school security consulting firm. He has helped Wethersfield, East Hartford, Winsted and now Sherman produce security plans, as well as recommending what measures to install in their schools using the state funding.
For example, in Wethersfield, every computer in a police cruiser has the security plan downloaded, giving officers schematic drawings of each school, contact information for school officials and exits and entrances for school buildings.
"If you had told me in 2013 that nearly half the school districts wouldn't submit plans I wouldn't have believed you," state Rep. Andrew Fleischmann said. He is chairman of the legislature's education committee and was one of the lawmakers involved in passing the new regulations in 2013. "What happened at Sandy Hook was so awful and horrific, and parents and educators were made so very aware of risks facing students and educators, that we had a sense of everyone mobilizing. I am trying to figure out what could have possibly prevented districts from doing their due diligence and submitting a plan and we will work to get that number down to zero."
Fleischmann said that could mean passing new laws to inflict penalties on school districts that don't follow the law.
"If we introduce a bill next session for penalties for leaders of school districts or the districts themselves, that would certainly get the attention of everyone who isn't complying with the law," Fleishmann said.
DESPP spokesman Scott Devico said the plans also are important for the state police who are likely to respond to any mass emergency. At Sandy Hook, many of the responding troopers couldn't find the school, wasting precious seconds when a gunman is firing at children.
"School security is one of the most important things that we do and it is our hope that all of the school districts would comply with the state law," Devico said. "We have been working very closely with schools to complete the documents, but it is always an ongoing process. They may have a plan, but just aren't submitting it to us."
Bristol Superintendent Susan Moreau said school officials were unaware that they needed to submit security plans until recently and are gathering information from all of their schools to submit to the state.
Moreau didn't know why fire drill information hadn't been submitted to the state. Devico said state officials believe school districts are performing them, but he acknowledged that the scant number of records submitted to the state raises concerns.
Vincent Riccio Jr., a former New Haven police officer who formed his own security company focusing on active-shooter training, said he wonders if school districts are doing lockdown drills, which are much more involved than fire drills.
"Fire drills last maybe 15 minutes and are easy to do, but to do a lockdown drill right could take an hour, and if schools aren't submitting their reports, you have to wonder if they'd be committed to that amount of time," Riccio said.
Waterbury's Interim Chief Financial Officer Robert Brenker said his district has been proactive. It is one of the few districts that has submitted records.
"We take these drill seriously, as if they are real life, because you never know when it will be real life," Brenker said.
Waterbury also is one of the 34 school districts that have asked the state for an extension of their grant funding in order to complete work on their schools.
As part of the law that was passed, the state put about $42 million into a security fund, and grants were awarded in 2013 and 2014. The way the grant works is that towns must pay a percentage of the total cost of the project, which is determined by how wealthy a community may be. The law was changed in 2014 to allow private schools access to 10 percent of the grant money.
Waterbury received about $2.3 million, and $1.8 million of it will be reimbursed by the state once work is completed.
Brenker said his district has used the money to install more security cameras and put in buzzer alarm systems at every school. The city hasn't yet run out of funding for its portion, but it is getting close. It applied for an extension because officials are still working on communications issues and want to add more cameras.
Hamden got more than about $2 million, but the town needed to pitch in $742,000 of that. The town also has applied for an extension, according to Superintendent of Schools Jody Goeler.
The district has used the funding to laminate all first-floor windows, upgraded video security and implement a key card system. Goeler said the district has applied for an extension because more work is needed to improve communications.
"There was a period of time where we didn't know if we would need additional funds to get two-way radios," Goeler said.
Goeler came to Hamden from the Bethlehem/Woodbury school district, where Dawn Hochsprung was a principal before moving onto Sandy Hook Elementary School. Hochsprung was the first person killed by Adam Lanza when she confronted him in the hallway after he had shot his way into the school through the front glass windows.
"I knew people who were killed that day, as did many people in those two towns, so school security is a priority," Goeler said. "I wouldn't know how to put together an emergency plan if I fell over one, so I knew I needed to put together a team right away. We fight about a lot of things when it comes to school budgets but school safety is not one of them."
Devico said many schools have installed numerous security features, from window film or bulletproof glass to better intercom systems, more surveillance cameras inside and outside school buildings and new locks.
"With all of the investments that the state has made in improving school security, there's no question that schools in Connecticut are safer than ever," Devico said. "But there are towns that are more than likely struggling to come up with the funds to match the grant because of budget issues."
Moreau said the local match is a concern in Bristol. The district also has applied for an extension of its grant funding, although Moreau said she isn't sure who did it.
"We have yet to find out who requested an extension for those grant funds. The business administrator on staff at that time has left our employ," Moreau said. "I believe that we were not able to come up with the $75,000 grant match as we were in a deficit position with our budget. That would have diminished the grant award by an equal percentage."
In Bristol, the schools plan on using money from another grant -- the Alliance District Building Repairs Grant -- to cover costs. Moreau said that money, when appropriated, will be used to replace older cameras and expand the use of the Rapture System that screens individuals visiting schools.
Devico said there are other reasons schools may be behind in finishing the security work -- for instance,, much of the work must be done in the summer in order to avoid interrupting classes, and schools are fighting over the same contractors to do some of the work.
Enfield applied for an extension for its 2014 grant because it was struggling to find contractors, Superintendent of Schools Christopher Drezek said. Enfield installed bulletproof film for windows, more video surveillance equipment and mantrap vestibules in some schools.
"Contractors approved by the state had booked up schedules as other municipalities across the state were scheduling work for them," Drezek said.
There are 16 school districts that have never applied for a state school security grant. Many were smaller districts, like Franklin, which has only one school with 160 students.
Franklin Superintendent Lawrence Fenn said that, after the Sandy Hook school shootings, officials there formed a school safety committee that included the town's resident state trooper, and then decided not to apply for a state grant.
"The committee looked into it and we were kind of discouraged by the process to apply for a grant," Fenn said. "It seemed clear as a smaller school we weren't a priority district."
The district decided to make security upgrades on its own. It was aided by a local licensed electrician who volunteered to install security cameras all through the school and outside in the parking lot.
Franklin hasn't submitted a security plan to the state in two years, or its fire drill records.
"I think if you came down here, you'd find that our schools are very secure," Fenn said.
One of the larger school districts that hasn't submitted a plan is Clinton.
"It was really more of a personnel and timing issue," Superintendent Maryanne O'Donnell said. "We didn't have a tech director or a business manager, so we just didn't apply. The initial hardening of the schools we did right away and just used capital funds to pay for it."
O'Donnell said she has no doubt that Clinton schools, probably like all schools in Connecticut post-Sandy Hook, are much more secure.
"I don't think it is possible to walk into a school in Connecticut anymore without some sort of buzzer system," O'Donnell said. "It (the shooting) made us much more aware of security."
(Courant Reporter Mikaela Porter contributed to this story.)
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