Board of Education votes to keep full-time threat assessor

The Board of Education voted 4-0 to keep the threat assessment coordinator position full-time at its May 1 special meeting with the Wilton Security Task Force.

The Board of Education called for the special meeting after school administration and threat assessment consultant David Bernstein recommended the position be reduced to part-time at the board’s April 24 meeting.

The administration’s recommendation was a result of the Board of Finance’s request to cut the nearly $80 million education budget by $750,000.

At the April 24 meeting, Assistant Superintendent Charles Smith and Dr. Bernstein recommended the part-time position be given to an existing school psychologist or counselor, despite the Security Task Force’s initial recommendations for the position.

According to Ken Post, director of financial planning and operations, there are approximately nine to 10 psychologists and four social workers currently in the Wilton School District.

Dr. Bernstein said Wilton is a “low-risk” area that only has about two to four threat risk incidents a year, and therefore does not need a full-time threat assessment coordinator.

Dr. Bernstein instead recommended a “hybrid” position, in which an existing staff member would devote 10-20% of his or her time to threat assessment responsibilities.

Task force discussion

Security Task Force Chairman Hal Clark said the functions listed in the threat assessor job description are needed “to respond to the world in which we never wanted to live in.”

Police Chief and task force member Michael Lombardo said he doesn’t know if any current school faculty has the ability or time to take on the additional responsibilities that come with the threat assessor position.

“It’s definitely a full-time position. The safety of students, faculty and staff is important,” said Chief Lombardo.

“We owe it to students, we owe it to staff, we owe it to the community.”

Mr. Clark said if the position were given to an existing staff member, the individual probably wouldn’t have the forensic psychology training listed in the job description.

In a written statement, education board and Security Task Force member Glen Hemmerle said, “The proposals and recommendations made by the task force were in each and every case thoroughly discussed, researched and put forth as reasonable steps to help ensure the safety and well-being of Wilton schools, students and staff.”

Task force member Roseann DeSimone told the board she spoke to forensic psychologists and asked them: “What would be the appropriate person to bring into the school setting?”

As a result of her conversations with forensic psychologists, Ms. DeSimone said she learned that educational background and experience are crucial.

“I work in the Wilton Public School district and I’m proud to be with my esteemed colleagues, but the training and expertise is in a certain venue,” said Ms. DeSimone, a state-certified health educator and registered nurse.

“When talking forensic psychology, you’re talking clinical; you’re talking someone in a forensic facility where there’s training, there’s profiling — there’s a lot of stuff going on.”

Ms. DeSimone posed a question to the board:  “If you have a psychologist and you have a forensic psychologist and you have an issue with forensics, who are you going to go to?”

Ms. DeSimone said while the psychologist may be “very well trained and highly respected, that other person  [the forensic psychologist] has that ‘oomph.’”

Mr. Clark said he thinks it would be difficult for someone to fulfill threat assessment responsibilities if they’re “lacking the skill set.”

Terrie Schwartz, task force member with FBI and homeland security experience, said, “It really takes a specific skill set to do the job professionally and well.”

In response to Dr. Bernstein’s comment on April 24 about Wilton being a low-risk area, Ms. Schwartz said, “I think if we were to rely on statistics for what has happened, I think that would be naive, because I think the statistics of two to four [threat risk cases] could change tomorrow in such a great number.”

“We saw it just the other day with the stabbing of the girl in Milford. It’s random events. You’re not exactly sure what’s going to trigger people,” said Ms. Schwartz.

“I think we can all agree that the landscape that we’re now living in is quite different than a couple years ago, or 10 years ago,”

Ms. Schwartz said she doesn’t believe “somebody who has many other things to do,” like an existing staff member, “would be able to keep up with the pace if the paced changed.”

Ms. DeSimone said the threat assessor position needs to be filled by someone with a background in forensic psychology, who can identify, track and strategize.

“The amount of stress and baggage these students bring into the classrooms is phenomenal,” said Ms. DeSimone.

“We need to start tracking them from kindergarten; we need to start tracking them, perhaps, from preschool and track them up into the high school.”

Ms. DeSimone said a full-time threat assessment coordinator would be capable of doing the job needed to prevent and defend against potential deadly violence in Wilton schools.

Ms. DeSimone said school staff is “stressed to the max.”

“We are all working every single hour of the day, doing what we need to do and then some, because of the amount of students who are coming through the doors,” said Ms. DeSimone.

“I think having a hybrid is great on paper, but perhaps in facilitation it’s just not going to work.”

Board deliberation

“I was ready to vote a week ago to go with the administration’s recommendation,” said Board of Education Chairman Bruce Likly said at the special meeting.

“In listening to the discussion this evening, I shifted to thinking 10-20% wouldn’t be enough.”

Education board member Christine Finkelstein said the discussion with the task force changed her thoughts on the position as well.

“I came to this meeting tonight very persuaded by what Dr. Bernstein told us last week ... that the threat assessor does not need to be a full-time position,” said Ms. Finkelstein. “I’ve changed my thinking.”

Board member Lory Rothstein said the meeting with the task force didn’t change her position, but rather enforced it.

“I’ve always been in favor of this position being a full-time job. I’ve never wavered from that position, and if anything, tonight’s discussion makes me even more firmly planted in that position,” said Ms. Rothstein.

“I feel that it is not a question of hybrid or full-time. The question before us is either you do it or you don’t do it, and if you’re going to do it, you do it right.”

Mr. Likly motioned for the full-time position, which was seconded by Ms. Rothstein.

“My reasoning is I believe we need more than 10-20%,” said Mr. Likly.

“I’d be comfortable with trying 50-75% but through this discussion, I don’t see how we can do that with existing staff.”

Mr. Likly, Ms. Rothstein, Ms. Finkelstein and board member Laura Schwemm voted in favor of a full-time position, while board member Chris Stroup voted opposed. Mr. Hemmerle was not present to vote.

Budget adjustments

After voting on a full-time position, the Board of Education met with Dr. Smith and Mr. Post to adjust the education budget.

“We added $75,769 back into the budget for the threat assessment coordinator salary and FICA [federal insurance contributions],” said Mr. Post.

To offset this increase, the following budget reductions were made:

• $27,510 in salary savings from a known retirement;

• $24,696 reduction of staffing budget for the alternative night school;

• $5,844 reduction of health benefits;

• $17,719 cut from Middlebrook’s mobile Chromebook cart.