Board discusses school safety

At the first school board meeting since the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, the board began the public dialogue on Thursday, Jan. 10, concerning safety measures in the wake of the tragedy in Newtown, Conn.

A number of measures were considered, most notably  an external security audit to assess the district’s security and the formation of a specialized committee to investigate actions that can be taken to improve security.

Board members Stephanie Tobin and Peter Breslin were not particularly enthusiastic about the idea of a committee, though, because of time and productivity concerns.

Ms. Tobin said committees often kick issues down the road and produce watered-down results, which are particularly concerning considering the public was looking for a response to this issue immediately.

“I am personally not comfortable putting any firearms in our schools, whether it is trained personnel or a police officer,” she said. “I do not feel that is the way to respond to a situation like this.”

Mr. Breslin said a committee is called for in this situation.

“I know we want to move fast on this but the problem is if we don’t have a committee, who does it fall to?” Mr. Breslin asked the board and administration. “We don’t have the expertise. The administration has enough to do. We need somebody, some group focused on this very important issue.”

The board mulled a number of factors concerning safety, including facility security, storm response and student risk behavior. Superintendent of Schools Dr. Paul Kreutzer emphasized that a number of security measures have been taken, but that some details cannot be divulged for security reasons.

Dr. Kreutzer also gave a preliminary review of findings from a recent Pride survey that assessed student risk behaviors in the district as part of the district safety presentation. The survey had favorable indicators for the district but did show areas of concern regarding attitudes toward drug use at the high school. The full survey will be presented in greater detail in the coming meetings.

“I want to let you guys know this is a beginning dialogue, I want to give you guys an idea of what we’ve been working on without getting into great detail,” he said. “It is not going to be giving you any direct definitive actions or details tonight but we are going to begin a long, deliberate and methodical process of moving all of our safety facets forward.”

Many members of the public were less interested in the long-term solutions and more concerned with the district’s immediate response.

Members of the public packed the John Jay High School library for the meeting, containing their emotions for three hours or as long as some could, with intermittent grumbling and an outburst of parents calling for public discussion on safety to be held as soon as possible, considering members of the public had started to leave.

The issue of safety was the last topic following a number of presentations and lengthy debate on snow days, a length of time many members of the public were offended by.

“To push this portion of the agenda behind whether or not we are adding two school days back in, and whether or not we will be adding tennis courts instead of a new softball field, I think clearly minimized the importance of this,” said Patrick Rooney, a father of three students in the district.

Several parents fought back tears as they relayed their fears of their children exposed on recess fields and in classrooms behind large glass windows. They also made suggestions for immediate things the district could do to increase safety, such as putting bars on low windows, ensuring schools are locked with single points of entry and doors that can be opened only from the inside of classrooms.

A few board members apologized to the public for making parents wait so long to discuss the safety issue, saying a misunderstanding had occurred. Two public forums were built into the meeting just to accommodate the expected overflow of public comment, one in the beginning and one at the end. The board members thought a majority of the parents were there to discuss the snow days.

“Safety is our number one concern,” board President Mark Lipton said. “If the board appeared tone deaf to that issue tonight because of the way the agenda was built, I would take the heat for that myself. I am responsible for the agenda, I am responsible for ordering the agenda in terms of what items come in which order.”

Mr. Lipton mentioned time constraints and a need to maintain the fluidity of the meeting as factors that determine the agenda’s layout.

“We certainly knew safety was going to be on everybody’s mind,” he said. “There were three or four items we thought were going to be well addressed at the microphone tonight. I tried to, when I put the agenda together, take all of that that into consideration and place all things. You shouldn’t think just because safety was the last item we got to tonight that that is where we necessarily place it as a priority.”

Mr. Rooney, who has 20 years of law enforcement experience, cautioned the board that while the Pride survey could prove useful in identifying potentials for dangerous outbursts, he warned of relying on it as a school safety measure.

“I walk around with a critical eye,” he said. “I have a cop’s eye and I see different things and I can tell you your security procedures are probably not being followed all the time. There are things you could do before you have a committee to hire a consultant to come in here. There are internal audits you can do.”

The majority of the board and members of the public were not in favor of increasing a gun presence in the schools.

“I would not like to see us move in a direction of armed personnel,” Ms. Tobin said. Members of the public also said that combating gun violence with more guns is not the answer, although not everyone agreed.

“I know a lot of people are afraid of guns,” said Marc DiGiacomo, a retired detective. “I am a retired police detective. I know a lot about guns. I just wonder if the families of those 26 people that were killed wish there was somebody with a gun in that school to stop this madman because that is the only way to stop somebody with this type of plan, whatever you want to call it. He shot his way through the front door, so what does a locked door do for you? With a gun like that with a hundred-round drum magazine, which is accessible to a lot of people, it was an easy thing for him.”

Mr. DiGiacomo was concerned that the new youth officer who will begin working in the district on Feb. 18 will not be enough, with a part-time police department, to ensure the safety of the school district.

“Our elementary schools seem so vulnerable to me,” he said. “I don’t want to put guns in the schools, I don’t.” But should the district move in that direction, he advised that it work only with law enforcement and not armed security firms.

To highlight the need for immediate safety measures, one parent shared a recent security breach. While picking up her daughter from school, she said, her babysitter attempted to access the school, but no one was answering the intercom. She said the babysitter was buzzed into the school by a passing student and when the babysitter reported to the lobby to sign in, no one was manning the front desk.

“Just like you don’t let a stranger into your home, you don’t let a stranger into your school,” the parent said. “That could have been another Adam Lanza walking in and blowing [people] away because a little girl let him in.”


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