Summer is drawing to a close and as students throughout the region pick out their new look and stock up their backpacks, police throughout the region are ramping up enforcement efforts and urging both students and parents to play it safe.
Students will return to class in North Stonington on Wednesday, while those in the Westerly, Stonington and Chariho school districts will go back to school on Tuesday, Sept. 3. There will likely be a strong police presence in each of these communities this year, part of an effort to set a positive tone.
"We will have extra patrols on near each of the schools on opening day, but the goal isn't to write tickets or cause trouble," Westerly Police Chief Shawn Lacey said this week. "The police presence is part of a larger effort alongside the public schools to make sure all students, staff and parents feel as safe and welcome as possible."
That will be no different in Stonington or Chariho, local police said, a resident trooper is also expected to be present for the first day activities in North Stonington. Lacey and Stonington Police Lt. Bryan Schneider each said officers on patrol will be asked to educate the public and enforce against dangerous behaviors that could put a child at risk.
Both Lacey and Schneider said officers have been directed to make sure students are not walking in the roadways, but rather stay safely on a sidewalk and using crosswalks, and are obeying crossing signals — and that parents and other motorists are following the rules of the road.
Keeping an eye out for children should be also top priority for anyone driving through the community, Schneider said.
"An important reminder for the general public outside the schools is to be constantly vigilant for children and school buses which are once again on the roadways," Schneider said. "We ask all motorists to always drive slow and safe through school zones. Increased enforcement in these areas especially at the start of school will take place."
The police said those who don't adhere to regulations are likely to pay a steep penalty if caught.
In Rhode Island, fines for passing a school bus that has its flashing red warning lights activated carries a $300 fine and possible 30-day suspension of license for first offense, and a mandatory fine of not less than $300 and/or revocation of license for one year for each subsequent offense. Connecticut drivers face a $465 fine for a first offense and a fine of $500 to $1,000 for any subsequent offenses.
Prepared for anything
Increased public concerns regarding school shootings has led to numerous changes within each of the area school districts over the past decade. All four districts have access to school resource officers and other police staff are regularly assigned to middle and/or high school facilities.
Westerly police will have two school resource officers in 2019, Lacey said, with Officer Frank Brancato at Westerly High School and Officer Patrick Ruisi assigned to Westerly Middle School. Ruisi is away on military leave and Youth Officer Anthony Alicchio will serve at the middle school until Ruisi returns.
Police in Stonington and Richmond also confirmed that school resource officers are assigned at Stonington and Chariho high schools, and Schneider said Stonington will also rely on the expertise of veteran youth officer Thomas Paige.
"We are always looking to increase our visual presence in and around the schools throughout the year," Schneider said.
In addition, police in all four school districts indicated that newer officers and those who are less familiar with the schools are given an opportunity to walk-through and see each of the facilities.
Stonington Police Capt. Todd Olson, who discussed the matter at length in 2018, said having knowledge of where students or suspects may be hiding is essential to police response. He said the agency hosts regular training each year, as well as the introductory programs designed to help in an emergency response. Lacey confirmed a similar effort in Westerly.
"We are regularly looking to improve the way we train, and to improve the way we can respond to any need within our community," he said.
New school, new challenges
While Stonington Middle School, formerly known as Mystic Middle School, remains in the same location and has the same design as it has had in years past, police in Stonington are preparing ahead as the students from Pawcatuck and Mystic both come together in 2019.
Paige is expected to work closely with school administrators at the start of the year to address any in-school concerns, Schneider said. The department will review traffic flow and other issues to try and prevent long-term problems, both at the school and in the surrounding neighborhood.
When issues are discovered, Schneider said the department is prepared to address those needs in a timely fashion.
"I am sure as the school year progresses members of the police department will potentially meet with school administrators to implement plans that address those identified challenges," he said.
Talk with your kids
Connecticut State Police said this week that talking with their children is the most important thing parents can do to help set up their children for a strong school year.
Parents should also remind their children to wait for their bus in a safe place, to stay out of the roadway whenever possible, and only cross the street after looking both ways, even if the bus lights are activated.
"As over half-a-million Connecticut children head back to school over the next few weeks, state troopers urge all parents and guardians to discuss school, traffic, and personal safety with their children. Troopers also caution all drivers to be aware of back to school bus, pedestrian and bicycle traffic," Connecticut State Police said in a press release.
Both Lacey and Schneider also said that their agencies will put an emphasis on reporting any concerns, whether an usual person or backpack, or just something out of the ordinary. Lacey said officers would much rather respond to find the complaint "was nothing," then to learn late about a problem when it's too late to prevent a tragedy.
"If you see something, say something. We cannot overstate that message," Lacey said.