By SUSAN HAIGH
HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) _ Connecticut lawmakers turned their focus Tuesday to ways to improve safety at colleges and universities, in addition to primary and secondary schools, following the deadly massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown.
Members of the General Assembly’s Higher Education Committee heard testimony on a bill that would require each state and independent higher education institution to submit an up-to-date security protocol plan to the state’s Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection by Oct. 1.
The schools would also be required to establish trained threat assessment teams for each of their campuses.
Rep. Roberta Willis, D-Lakeville, the committee’s co-chairman, said a bipartisan legislative task force charged with reviewing the Dec. 14 Newtown shooting originally planned to review security at colleges and universities but did not have enough time and instead focused on primary and secondary school safety measures. She said the higher education committee plans to address the issue this session, which adjourns June 5.
“When you look around the country at all the difference incidences that have happened, sadly, a lot of them have been on college campuses,” said Willis, adding how many recent mass shooters, including the Newtown killer, were of college age. “We know that the behavioral health issues sometimes percolate to the surface during those years.”
Barbara O’Connor, chief of police and director of public safety at the University of Connecticut, said UConn supports legislation that requires trained threat assessment teams, adding how the legislation coincides with the university’s efforts to update its own threat assessment procedures and provide additional training for assessing and responding to threats.
She recommended, however, that lawmakers allow each school’s administration to decide who should be a member of those teams. She also urged the committee to change the bill and not require students to be included on such teams.
“Threat assessment teams necessarily review and discuss some of the any institution’s most sensitive information, including medical records of faculty, staff and students, and records of performance and evaluation,” she said. “It would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to engage in such discussions without including identifiable information that simply should not be shared with students.”
Willis said lawmakers plan to rewrite the legislation to say institutions “may” include a student on the teams rather than “shall” include one.
Jane Fried, a professor and director of Student Development in Higher Education, masters in counseling program at Central Connecticut State University, suggested the legislators think beyond the bill that’s under consideration. In addition to threat assessment teams, she said all campus employees need to be trained to recognize the signs that a student may be in emotional trouble.
“We could do this with current employees and be equally effective,” she said, when asked whether she supported requiring schools to hire more trained counselors. She said faculty members in particular should receive training, considering they spend so much time with students.
Fried said colleges and universities need to focus on helping students achieve their goals, making sure every student has at least one employee or advanced student who can be a mentor and guide them through at least their first two years of school. Fried said many students are under a lot of stress about repaying student loans and finding jobs after graduation.
She said there are two particularly high-risk groups of students that schools need to be aware of.
They include students who are the first generation in their families to attend college and may not have the support at home. Also, Fried said there are many returning veterans who have transitional problems as they move from a group-oriented environment to a competitive college environment.