Dozens attend Community Safety Forum

Dozens of community members, between 75 and 80, attended a two-plus hour Community Safety Forum at the Middle School cafeteria last night to discuss school safety concerns.

Superintendent Susan Swartz introduced the panel members who were there to discuss safety in schools: Scotia Police Chief Peter Frisoni, Glenville Police Chief Steve Janik, BOCES Health, Safety and Risk Management specialist Tim Murphy, High School Principal Peter Bednarek and Middle School Principal Robert Cosmer.

The five said they work well together and have always had  open communication during incidents involving the schools. “We have always had a good relationship. That has always been the case,” said Bednarek. “I have never felt like I wasn’t being dealt with up front.”

They also discussed their involvement with the district’s Health and Safety Committees. “We constantly have issues to talk about because to make a school completely secure is very difficult,” added Bednarek.

Cosmer noted that, going back decades, schools were “built up (three or more stories high) but now the schools are built long. That means more points of entry. That make it more challenging to keep everybody safe when there are so many ways to get in or out of a building.”

Swartz noted a few items of security that she is working on now:

  • The District Office is now locked all the time, like the schools, and is only accessible by being “buzzed” in by a staff member
  • She said the town and industrial park are interested in doing something to create a safe passage from the high school parking lot to the middle school. This issue has been discussed for a long time. The property where a sidewalk could be added, outside the athletic fence, does not belong to the school district. Swartz said she’s eager to see what the park and town propose.
  • $100,000 in the proposed 2018-19 budget will be used for a variety of security upgrades, such as adding a second secure door at each elementary school, additional cameras, strobe lights for open spaces at the middle school and high school and additional video phones for the district office.

Here are some of the topics that were addressed during the forum:

  • Lock down drills have not been done at the high school

RESPONSE: There have been shelter-in-place and fire drills during the first half of the year, said Bednarek. The first lock down drill at the high school was done two weeks ago and two to three more will be done before the end of the school year.
Bednarek said he plans to change the schedule next year to schedule more lock down drills in the first half of the year. He also plans to beef up assemblies at the beginning of the year that discuss safety procedures with students at the high school. “We need to be better about these. We plan to do more robust drills at the beginning of the year,” he said.

“We encourage schools to do the lock down drills, but we don’t want to see them become so common,” said Janik. He said the department practices Reality Based Training and “we try to think of things that we can do during a lock down drill to just make it less predictable for the kids.” His officers, as well as those from Scotia, are always present and give students and staff advice about how to make the drills more effective.

Murphy said that statistics show that at least 45 percent of people “freeze” during an incident and are unable to function, a phenomenon in emergency preparedness called normalcy bias. “We do the drills to develop their muscle memory,” he said. “We want them to be able to react and not freeze during an incident and to know what to do to stay safe.”

Cosmer said the middle school has already done three of the required four drills this year and will probably do five. “Every time we do one, we notice something that we didn’t notice last time,” he said. He mentioned that the strobe lights that are part of the budget would be used in open spaces, like the cafeteria, chorus room and auditorium, where alarms often can’t be heard.

  • What’s the protocol to inform parents about an incident? Parents were in a panic. They all rushed to school that morning (March 14) to grab their kids because they didn’t hear anything from the school.

RESPONSE: Cosmer noted that it was a perfect storm that morning with the planned national walkout involving Scotia-Glenville students and a two-hour weather delay. Tensions were high because of the news across the country about the walk outs and it was a month to the day after the school shooting in Florida.

He said his two security monitors were also out that morning, so Assistant Principal Anthony Peconie as well as teachers and others were helping to sign students out when parents showed up. Cosmer was in the auditorium coordinating the walk out.

“We were trying to be as accommodating as possible for parents. Our teachers were there and recognized a lot of the parents before we released any students,” he said. “You have to realize that we will get information out as soon as we have good information to get out.”

If this were to happen again, he said the reunification protocol would require that a table be set up in the auditorium lobby and he would instruct parents to return to their cars and come in one at a time to pick up students. They would be asked for identification before the school would release a child.

Bednarek said he takes responsibility for not setting up a formal reunification procedure at the high school. “This was all happening before the start of school that day, so there was little time to plan for it,” he said. He said he should have communicated more precisely with the staff so that they could reassure the students who were in classrooms at the time, before homeroom. “I had no way to reach all of the students at one time because many never made it to homeroom. We had not even taken attendance yet,” he said. “850 families were coming to the school and texting back and forth with each other before school even started.”

Bednarek said in the future, the school district will use the Blackboard Connect notification system to reach out to parents when there is useful information to share.

Swartz said her efforts during an incident have to be put into making sure students and staff are safe. “We are anxious to deal with our parents, but at that time, our primary focus is your children, our staff and the police,” she said. “You are not my priority. I hope you can understand that.”

Janik said that morning, March 14, “was the absolute perfect storm with a walk out already planned, that we were going to be at anyways, and then a two-hour delay for school.” When news of the threat became known, he said officers began questioning students and trying to get information about it. But he said he is limited in a situation like this – if a child is under 14, officers can not speak directly to them. So police had to work through the school administrators, who can question students younger than 14.

He said the school district “was doing everything that it could do. Parents were walking right by me and not one person stopped to ask me what was going on. If they really wanted to know, you’d think somebody would have asked a uniformed police officer.”

He reiterated that it made no sense to call a lock down or a lock out. Lock downs are for threats inside the building – which there were none; lock outs are for threats outside the building – which there were none. Plus, he said, a lock out would have meant students would have shown up at school and not been able to get into the building. “That just didn’t make any sense with six police cars parked out front,” he said.

There were many comments about the ill effects of social media during an incident like this. Swartz said that, in the future, the district would only use two forms of communication: the website and the Blackboard Connect system, which reaches everybody. Social media will no longer be used to release this type of information about an incident because of the explosion of incorrect information that flows too easily on Facebook.

“The truth is a lot slower than misinformation,” said Murphy. “We need to give you the right information. Once we get that to you, you need to believe what we are telling you. I have never seen a school lie to parents. There is no reason for them to do that.”

  • It is too easy to get into the Middle School. There is no security at the door at all. I have been able to just get buzzed in and that’s it. No identification is asked for at all. Public buildings are locked down but our schools are not. We need some kind of safety plan that lays all of this out.

(in fact, only courtrooms in public buildings require attendees to go through metal detectors and be searched; other spaces in public buildings are generally open.)

Swartz said that the door monitors are told to get identification from visitors. “Please tell us if this is not happening. We tell the staff what they should be doing, so please let know if that is not happening,” she said.

  • Is senior privilege changing because of the security measures?

Bednarek said students are now required to re-enter the building through the front door. He said students would historically go out and come back through the doors next to the cafeteria. Students would let them in that door even though it was locked. He said that has changed and a monitor was placed near the side door to ensure no students try to come back into the building through that door.

  • How are kids safe after hours? I had to pick up by daughter at YCare and I just walked in the door.

Swartz said the YCare program now admits parents through a locked door every day. The doors are locked until 6 p.m. After that, she said the school does not provide security and those in the building should call 911 if they suspect a problem. “We don’t have 24 hour security here and we never will,” she said.

  • What else can we do? Do you need contractors? Or volunteers to make this happen? We know it is expensive to make the doors more secure.

Swartz said the architects have estimated it would cost $10 million to retrofit all of the school building doors with secure vestibules, in which a visitor would be stopped before entering the inside door. She said the Board of Education could plan another capital project to construct secure vestibules at each building.

Murphy noted that, between 2000-2013 in K-12 active shooting incidents, about 95% of the perpetrators were enrolled students in the school. They were not committed by somebody from outside.

“We need to approach school security from many directions, but at the end of the day this facility is here to educate your children,” he added.

Swartz mentioned that schools are hamstrung by the state’s property tax levy cap that limits budget spending for items such as security while also trying to provide academic programs for students.

She said it would be helpful if members of the community appealed to their state legislators and came to Board of Education meetings to let their feelings be known.

  • It seems we are beating a dead horse here. Our time would be better spent finding a solution to these issues. What are the other things that we can do? How about a fire extinguisher in every classroom? They have a range of 12-20 feet and could at least buy us some time if it were sprayed at somebody trying to come in.

Janik said he has been checking the security of office buildings in the town and thinking about ways that employees could protect themselves. “We find that there are only a few options – run, hide or fight,” he said. “Would a fire extinguisher slow somebody down? Yes.”

  • Are there enough supplies in the schools in case something happens? Several children get hurt? Do the teachers or others have training in first aid, CPR, trauma care? I know every school has a nurse and maybe your physical education teachers have training, but anybody else?

Bednarek said that all students are taught CPR before they graduate from high school. He agreed to check on the supply situation at the high school and said that several adults at the high school are trained in first aid.

Frisoni reminded the community that the Scotia Fire Department emergency medical technicians are just 5 minutes away from the schools and could easily respond in the case of a medical situation.

  • What can be done to identify mental health issues, to try to prevent anything from happening?

Cosmer said the Middle School Crisis Response Team meets regularly to discuss students and particular changes they may have noticed in specific students. “Some kids may need our help or they may need help outside the building,” he said. “We talk about their grades, if there any changes in their grades and what else may be happening with these children at home.”

Bednarek said the high school operates in a similar fashion. The guidance counselors meet to talk about particular students who may be struggling or showing signs of stress at school.

Swartz also mentioned that there is funding in the proposed 2018-19 budget to place a person from the Saratoga Family Center at the high school to assist in cases where students need assistance that can’t be provided at school.