Connecticut Center for School Safety and Crisis Preparation Launched

Connecticut by the Numbers

In response to an ever-growing need for safety and mental health support programs in public schools, Western Connecticut State University (WCSU) has opened the Connecticut Center for School Safety and Crisis Preparation

The Center will support all Connecticut public schools with safety initiatives and provide a variety of pre- and post-crisis intervention services. Center staff will be available to manage regional safety issues, offer professional development and provide active services related to school crises.

As a recent uptick in threats to Connecticut schools and throughout the nation has highlighted the continued need for safety and mental health support programs in public schools, the Center’s programs will assist schools in their efforts to make students and school staff safer. The Center recently completed its first annual school safety survey in which 763 respondents indicated that mental health, bullying, cyberbullying and school threat assessment were key concerns.

In July 2021, WCSU received appropriations from the State of Connecticut to establish the Center for School Safety and Crisis Preparation. Subsequently, the university entered into an agreement with the Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection to provide school safety services to all schools in the state via the Center, which was approved by the Board of Regents on December 16, 2021.  The $2 million state grant will fund this program for two years; the Center hopes to identify additional funding, estimating that it needs $6 million to fully staff the Center and develop more service programs.

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“The new Connecticut Center for School Safety and Crisis Preparation will serve as a school crisis and safety resource to all public school districts in the state. The Center’s mission is to conduct research and provide training and technical assistance on student resilience, school crisis, school trauma and school safety,” said Dr. Gabriel Lomas, founder of the Center and former program coordinator for Clinical Mental Health Counseling at WCSU.

The Center will work with leaders in state government, including the Departments of Education, Public Health, Emergency Management and Children and Families to develop and provide services. Additionally, the Center will manage expert staff placed throughout the state through special partnerships. Staff will coordinate regional crisis teams and other safety services for schools.

“I have been working to improve school safety since 2011, and my work took on greater importance after the Sandy Hook Elementary School tragedy. In 2012, colleagues and I formed a regional crisis team for area schools, primarily to provide a platform of shared training and the ability to provide mutual aid in a disaster,” Lomas recalled.

The goal is for schools to be better prepared for crises and trauma reduced, hopefully resulting in psychologically healthier students and lower health care costs in the long run. In addition to providing training and intervention services, Center staff are ready to deploy to a campus when a school requests help.

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The Center’s staff will include at least five school safety consultants who have the expertise to review school safety and crisis plans and provide feedback to strengthen those plans. Many of the Center’s services are free of charge to Connecticut’s public school districts, and it will also provide a variety of low-cost trainings addressing student safety including student mental health, threat assessment, suicide prevention/postvention and other relevant topics.

The Connecticut Center for School Safety and Crisis Preparation staff also will provide professional development related to all aspects of school safety planning, including both prevention and intervention, and establish relationships among area school districts that will create a network of professionals who become available to each other for both formal and informal crisis support.

Staff will conduct research on prevention, crisis, safety and trauma related to students and schools, and provide consultation and on-site support to member districts upon the occurrence of a crisis event within or related to a school. The Center will assume leadership for regional crisis teams and will focus on resiliency, trauma, prevention, intervention and postvention.

Amery E. Bernhardt, D. M. has been appointed as Director of the Center.  He brings a passion for school safety and collaboration to the Center, having recently retired from the Westchester County Department of Public Safety where he coordinated the School Resource Officer Program. He earned a master’s degree in Homeland Security, where his thesis focused on school safety. Dr. Bernhardt completed a dissertation focusing on multidisciplinary school threat assessment teams. He has extensive experience in all the phases of emergency management and received his Certified Emergency Manager (CEM) designation from the International Association of Emergency Managers.

According to the Center’s leaders, several federal and Connecticut laws are aimed at reducing school violence, developing school-based mental health services, preventing crises and improving responses to crisis events, and school leaders have worked tirelessly on these goals and to determine priorities regarding student safety.

The state’s largest school tragedy, and recommendations from the Nov. 21, 2014, Sandy Hook Report by the Office of the Child Advocate, inspired the Center.  It will be housed in White Hall on its Western’s Midtown campus, 181 White St., Danbury, under the university’s Education and Educational Psychology Department.

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