Stamford planned a forum on school safety after a student fight at Cloonan. Then the Texas massacre happened.

Cloonan Middle School in Stamford, Conn., on Monday, Dec. 16, 2019.

Cloonan Middle School in Stamford, Conn., on Monday, Dec. 16, 2019.

Tyler Sizemore / Hearst Connecticut Media file photo

STAMFORD — When Stamford scheduled a public forum on mental health and school safety for the middle of last week, it was because a Cloonan Middle School student had been assaulted.

The local concern over children’s safety in school turned into a national conversation less than 24 hours before the Stamford’s public forum began, when a teen gunman walked into a fourth-grade classroom in Uvalde, Texas, and killed 19 children and two adults.

“Our hearts are grieving with the people of Uvalde,” said Stamford Mayor Caroline Simmons. “What happened is every parent’s worst nightmare.”

The forum, which had been scheduled days before the shooting, focused mostly on how to provide safe environments for Stamford school children and how to better address mental health issues.

After a student was beaten and seriously injured — allegedly by five other students at Cloonan Middle School — parents, educators and health professionals there have been focused on schools and the ongoing mental health crisis brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It’s unbelievable that we’re here talking after an incident in one of our schools,” said Superintendent Tamu Lucero. “Parents trust us, sending their children to school everyday, so safety and security is at the top of our list.”

On Wednesday, a day after the Texas shooting, police were at Stamford schools in larger numbers.

“That means a lot to us because we don’t even have to call before they come,” Lucero said.

Judy Cleto, a parent who attended the meeting, said she worried that a larger police presence wasn’t a signal of safety to some parents, and that police should become more involved in the community and not just appear “when something happens that is bad.”

Stamford Police Chief Tim Shaw agreed, saying the department is doing more outreach.

He said some children came up to him on Wednesday, when police were at the school in the wake of Uvalde, and asked why he was there.

“For me it’s an easy answer,” he said. “I just want to meet you and shake your hand.”

The debate about having police officers in the schools is longstanding and affected by current events.

Joe Kennedy, a former Stamford police officer who is now the school district’s safety, compliance and employee relations manager, said there were about 15 School Resource Officers in the district in the 1990s. Now, there are four, spread out over the two biggest high schools.

He said the district and the police department’s approach is to avoid arresting children for dangerous behavior if at all possible.

“Our SROs are working to avoid the trauma of the juvenile arrest,” Kennedy said.

Nonetheless, all five students involved in the Cloonan incident were arrested and charged with second-degree assault and breach of peace.

The district also has about 40 security guards stationed at the high schools, middle schools and a few elementary schools.

“The goal is to get as many security guards out there, and again, the philosophy with security guards is not about policing your kids,” Kennedy said. “It’s basically about calmness in a school, order in a school.”

Joseph O’Callaghan, director of social work for Stamford Public Schools, said the city needs to think about the emotional state of students as well when considering safety in schools. Students who feel at home in schools are less likely to tune out, he said.

“The more people feel like they belong and they’re connected and it’s theirs, the more likely it is they will thrive,” he said.

That connection goes both ways. Once staff is more familiar with a student, they can more easily spot erratic behavior, he said.

“If we’ve got a kid who’s been acting a certain way then something changes, that’s a red flag for us that we need to pay attention to and react to,” he said.

All of Stamford public schools are staffed with a social worker and psychologist. In secondary schools, school counselors are also on hand.

Simmons said mental health challenges are “top of mind” for her administration. She said Stamford has launched a mental health resource hub on the city’s website that includes links to a variety of resources.

“So many of our youth are struggling … with isolation and trauma,” she said.