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By 5 to 2, School Board Approves School Resource Officers

By James Lomuscio

After more than two hours of debate and public input for and against, Westport’s Board of Education tonight voted 5 to 2 to approve the concept of having an armed school resource officer (SRO) in its schools. Their number will be determined later.

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Westport Police Chief Foti Koskinas addresses the Board of Education tonight in support of adding school resource officers to Westport schools. (CLICK TO ENLARGE) Photo from Board of Education Television

Board member Vik Muktavaram and Mark Mathias were the dissenters. They said they were opposed to having guns in schools on an ongoing basis.

The proposal had been made by Schools Superintendent Colleen Palmer in the fall, well before the recent student threatening incident at Staples High School.

She said that the Westport school system was the only one in its district resource group (DIRG) not to have an SRO.

These trained officers build trust with students, serve as role models, teach and can serve as a first line of defense against a school shooter when seconds count, proponents said.

Police Chief Foti Koskinas, who was at tonight’s meeting, has been a staunch supporter of having an SRO. He says that such officers take on the culture of the schools and not, as detractors claim, turned schools into armed camps.

“Why haven’t we done this already?” he asked.

Palmer’s proposal gained traction in the wake of Florida’s Parkland shooting that that claimed 17 lives.

The concept hit home harder on Feb. 27 following a lockdown at Staples High School after a male student was overheard threatening to shoot a teacher and then go on a school shooting rampage.

The student, a juvenile whose father has AR-15 rifles and other guns locked in a home safe, was immediately put under psychiatric evaluation and recently arrested.

Despite the SRO concept gaining strong support in recent weeks, the idea still had its detractors, even on the school board.

“The question for me is what are we giving up?” said Muktavaram. “Philosophically I’m opposed to having guns in school on an ongoing basis. These are some of the things I am grappling with.

“What I fundamentally believe is that we don’t join the arms race ourselves,” he added, saying he feared the presence of SROs would be “normalizing guns” as “the only way to protect us.”

Mathias, too, said the concept was “really hard for me.”

“The bridge I have to get across is, ‘Do I want to have guns in schools every day?’” Mathias said.

Board member Karen Klein said she initially had similar reservations, but that any of her concerns were allayed after having visited the Ridgefield Public Schools that have had SROs in place and seeing how the program was successful different levels.

Jeannie Smith, school board vice chairwoman, called the voting in favor of the idea “a no brainer for me,” especially with the support it had from both Palmer and Koskinas.

“We’ll never know the number of incidents we prevented,” Smith said about SRO presence in schools. “It’s something I fully support.”

School board members Candice Savin and Elaine Whitney also expressed their support.

“I’m not comfortable with the fact that we’re the only town in our DIRG,” Savin said, not to have an SRO.

Savin said the town not having one would make it liable for not meeting a standard of care.

Michael Gordon, who made the motion for the vote seconded by Smith, said, “A few years ago I would not have been in favor of this, but there are bigger issues now.”

Comments from the public prior to the vote seemed to reflect the board’s vote. Most were overwhelmingly supportive, while comments from several members of the Donovan family opposed the idea.

“Guns in the schools is not the answer,” said Staples student Lydia Donovan, adding that a school shooter would have easier access to a gun and ammunition if he were to shoot the SRO first.

Candace Banks, PTA Council co-president, countered that SROs would offer schools “the gift of time” by having an officer in place instead of having to wait for officers to arrive.

Prior to the vote Palmer said she made her recommendation “with the utmost respect” for the safety and security of students and staff.

“These are very difficult issues and very different times,” she said.

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