In response to an ever-growing need for safety and mental health support programs in public schools, Western Connecticut State University has opened the Connecticut Center for School Safety and Crisis Preparation, housed in White Hall on its Midtown campus, 181 White St., Danbury, under the Education and Educational Psychology Department.
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 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. Lomas was the former program coordinator for Clinical Mental Health Counseling at WCSU. 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.
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 said.
Besides providing training and intervention services, Center staff are ready to deploy to a campus when a school requests help. 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.
Since December 2021, the Center’s director is Amery Bernhardt, D.M., CEM. Prior to joining WCSU, Bernhardt retired from the Westchester County Department of Public Safety where he coordinated the School Resource Officer Program. He received a master’s degree in Homeland Security from Pace University and a doctorate in Management from Colorado Technical University. Bernhardt’s thesis focused on school safety, and he also completed his dissertation on Comprehensive School Threat Assessment Teams. He has extensive experience in all phases of emergency management and received his Certified Emergency Manager (CEM) designation from the International Association of Emergency Managers. Bernhardt has published several articles on school safety and multidisciplinary response.
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. “Our goal is to make low-cost trainings accessible to all Connecticut schools, and our school safety consultants work at no cost to the schools they serve. Consultative services are also generally offered at no charge,” said Bernhardt, adding that the Center utilizes training by Safer Schools Together (SST).
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.
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 Connecticut Center for School Safety and Crisis Preparation will assist public school leaders with their efforts as needed. A $2 million state grant will fund this program for two years; the Center hopes to find additional funding, estimating that it needs $6 million to fully staff the Center and develop more service programs.
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. “The report indicates that lapses and weaknesses in the educational and healthcare system played a role in the deterioration of the perpetrator (page 8). It continues, ‘The goal of interconnection among separate systems within the mental health arena can only be achieved through the integration of schools and their active participation concerning the mental health and wellness of their students.’ That’s why the Center aims to connect school employees with each other and connect providers with school employees. The Center directly supports the collaboration of schools and mental health resources in the community,” Lomas explained.