Lessons From the Newtown Tragedy

A years-old video surveillance installation at Newtown High School in Connecticut provides a blueprint for working in today’s education market. Key factors in servicing your own community’s schools need to involve demonstrated cost-savings and positive behavior modification.

It is still hard to believe that 20 innocent young children and six adults could be slaughtered in Newtown, Conn. For such a beautiful little town the experience was emotionally staggering. I have lived and worked there since I was an executive with General Electric before starting J.P. Freeman Co. in 1983.

The town center dates to 1705 and is in the National Register of Historic Places. Homes range to well more than $1 million. Houses of worship serve every denomination. The community’s excellent school system sends 90% of its kids on to college. Yet, ironically, Newtown is now a tragic, even lethal word in our lexicon, referenced in many school security presentations.

If your security company is successful with its school presentations, you’ve probably done a good job educating school officials on the full range of benefits to be obtained from a new system. Electronic security is not a field educators know a lot about. No one ever expected a shooting at a Newtown elementary school. Yet, Newtown’s high school did have to deal with a spate of shenanigans and property damages several years ago, and it needed to stop.

J.P. Freeman Co. would eventually be asked to provide consultative services to the high school. We felt sharing that experience with other security companies could help prepare the groundwork for their own school efforts. So what follows is a real-world example of how the high school was secured, and the results of our work which we fully documented. (Note: we are business consultants, not system sellers and installers. But as a long-time local business, we were asked to be of service to our community.

Validating the Worth of a Security System

From reading my former “By the Numbers” column in SSI, the security director at Newtown High School invited me to a meeting. He wanted to curb student behaviors that were proving difficult to stop, even with an onsite policeman. He thought electronic security could do the trick, but needed lots of help with product selection, installation placement and system specifications.

We surveyed the school and developed a plan that we felt could meet two basic challenges — student behavior and cost. The end result was that the net cost and savings of the new system both proved to be very pleasant surprises to town managers. (If you’d like more details about the system design and installation, E-mail [email protected])

Our only regret is that no one ever thought our little Sandy Hook Elementary School would ever need this kind of protection. While the recent Boston Marathon bombings and the plot to derail a Toronto-area passenger train may have involved possible terrorist organizations, the Newtown massacre did not. As in the case of the shooting of former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in an Arizona shopping center, the Newtown shooting involved a mentally deranged young man.

Adam Lanza had access to multiple guns his mother had purchased and taught him to shoot. Under normal circumstances the mother could have sought help for her son from mental health professionals. But ironically, the institution that serves the mentally ill in Fairfield County in Connecticut — among the wealthiest counties in the United States — is located in Newtown. And the government closed it several years ago to save money on the assumption that newly developed psychosomatic drugs could replace the need to hospitalize mentally ill people. Yet as we now know, patient follow-up after release is often inadequate. And Newtown is now forever connected to a mentally disturbed young man who had easy access to military-grade weapons. (As a veteran of the 101st Airborne Division and 2nd Infantry Division, I’m familiar with such arsenal.)

In short, here are the issues we had to address in equipping Newtown High School:

Privacy and taxes — School officials may be wary of the impact video surveillance cameras can have on privacy. Generally, school officials are not familiar with the after-effects and the benefits of video, access control and other systems, given their experience mostly has been with conducting fire drills. They’ll ask, “Who will pay for it? Will it affect the town tax rate? Will people vote for it?” Once we developed the economics they were pleasantly surprised.

Detailing — Specifying a proposed system’s products and usage is easy for the security pro. But there’s not much school system education on the details of ensuing benefits, such as savings in police costs, reduced insurance premiums, reduced janitorial expenses, better damage control, to say nothing of real evidentiary protections in a lawsuit against the school and the town from a wealthy parent.

Breaking-in — No, not breaking and entering, but breaking students and staff in to a better sense of freedom and new behaviors that come with “living with a system.” One of the key benefits is a newfound sense of safety and peace of mind.

Teacher relaxation — Students become quickly aware of cameras in the classroom and the result is a better teaching environment. The bullies and troublemakers begin to behave as they realize that they’re under surveillance and subject to serious penalties and parental discipline.

Police savings — Increased control of behavioral problems like bullying, vandalism and theft reduces the need for police time on campus, as well as the considerable costs incurred due to that presence.

Economics — One of the strongest financial cases for a good system is payback (a.k.a. return on investment) in much less than two years — resulting in operational savings from that point forward — depending on the scope and price of the system. (See further details in our report.)

When we finished overseeing the system’s installation and testing, some of the more adventurous students decided to challenge it, but with no success. As these mischief-makers slowly conceded defeat by being recorded, caught, embarrassed and their parents notified, behavior continually improved.

The school superintendent summed it all up when he said to the local press, “We’ve always been proud of the openness and availability of the high school. Students and parents use the school at many times of day, so we needed to have a record of that activity as well as what transpired during the school day. I am happy to hear that it has worked.”

The superintendent’s words serve as a euphemism for controlling troublemaking students. But that’s the language educators sometimes use to describe the problem.

Joe Freeman, an SSI Hall of Fame inductee, is founder and president of J.P. Freeman Co., a company widely known for its security market reports and business consulting since 1983.

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