NEW YORK – These days, everyone is concerned with school safety — and with good reason. An internet map that Tim Mains, superintendent of Pine Bush schools, keeps his eye on is dotted with virtual pins, each marking a community reporting gunshots in schools. While every incident isn’t as horrific as the recent bloodshed in Parkland, Florida, each pin hurts.
So far this year, new pins have been added at a rate of more than one a week, said Mains in a recent interview.
Now, in a nation rubbed raw by gun violence, Parkland might be the ticket to reform. Absent national leadership, articulate students, grieving communities and corporate CEOs are signaling that the ritual moment of silence after mass shootings is no longer enough.
In this hyper-sensitive atmosphere, reports of possible trouble are spiking. "Nothing of substance" has been uncovered in Pine Bush, said Dominick Blasko, chief of the Crawford Police Department, one the many law enforcement agencies that cover the sprawling district.
But as if to emphasize the close of the "it can’t happen here" era, threat-related arrests have been made nearby, in such places as Saugerties, where police confiscated a fully automatic Uzi and an AR-15, and in the Village of Florida. In Poughkeepsie, school officials deemed a post on social media serious enough to shut down schools for two days.
Can’t Wait Any Longer
"We’ve been dealing with this since Columbine," Blasko said. Since 15 died on April 20, 1999, at Columbine High School near Denver, Colorado, at least 122 more have been killed in mass school shootings. And that number only includes incidents in which four or more people died.
Although some states, New York and Connecticut among them, enacted stricter gun laws after the 27 deaths on December 14, 2012, at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., the gun lobby has rallied to ward off widespread reform.
This time, less than a week after the February 14 massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, in Parkland, a Never Again movement was born and a protest, March for Our Lives, had been scheduled for March 24 in Washington, D.C., with satellite events popping up around the globe. (Including a Walkway Over the Hudson demonstration. For info, email Debra Clinton at email@example.com.)
On March 14, the one month anniversary of Parkland, the same group that organized the Women’s March on Washington is coordinating a 17-minute walkout, inviting students, teachers, administrators and parents. (Ellenville High will join in the national school walk out protest at 10 a.m.)
And on April 20, organizers of the National Day of Action Against Gun Violence in Schools, plan another school walkout.
"I feel I can’t wait for Albany and Washington," said Mains, who nonetheless was in Albany earlier this week, along with hundreds of superintendents from around the state to lobby for action. "We can’t go on" like this, he said.
What is different this time, in Mains’ view, are the "human beings who survived the Parkland shootings." These kids are articulate, poised, Mains said. They want stricter gun laws and they have the county’s attention.
In Ulster County, students at the High Meadow School in Stone Ridge showed the same awareness as they talked about Parkland last week at a school "town hall."
"It is important for us kids to get involved. These are our futures and our schools that we feel unsafe in. We should share our voices and give our say because when we speak up, America listens," said sixth-grader Maitreya Motel, in a press release from the school.
"The more young people that protest, the bigger an impact we make. … We want our voices to be heard," said Cody Victor, an eighth-grader and co-chair of the school March for Our Lives committee.
Hearing that many school shooters are described as "loners," High Meadow students also suggested that the school work to ensure all students feel included and supported.
Colleges, too, are signaling their approval of student activism. In a release, SUNY New Paltz said it was "proud to join other colleges and universities to reassure applicants for admission that their engagement in peaceful, lawful protest will not be a factor in our admission decisions."
And this time, corporate America has taken notice: Car rental companies, hotel chains, insurance companies, banks and airlines have all announced that they are ending discount arrangements for National Rifle Association members, over the group’s unbending resistance to even nominal changes in gun laws.
The stand will cost companies money. Some customers, incensed by corporate decisions, vow to take their business elsewhere.
According to a PBS report, attorney Larry Hutcher, who focuses on commercial law, said the companies are simply responding to a shift in public opinion on gun control. PBS cited a Quinnipiac University survey that showed 97 percent of the public backs universal background checks.
Individuals are going to court, too. In Oregon, a 20-year-old man is suing Walmart and Dick’s because those retailers have decided not to sell rifles to anyone under 21. The suit says Oregon permits such sales to anyone at least 18 years old.
The Most Important Factor
Meanwhile, in Washington, lawmakers left the Capitol for the weekend, having taken no action to curb gun-related violence or improve school safety.
President Trump, who expressed support for modest gun control measures during a meeting with members of Congress, quickly backed away from that stand after hearing from the NRA, according to a tweet by Chris Cox, a lobbyist for the organization.
Some congressmen used the weekend to get home and see what people in their districts are doing to head off another Parkland, Newtown or Columbine. On Saturday, for example, dozens of people attended Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney’s forum in Poughkeepsie to "develop real strategies" for addressing gun violence. Maloney, himself, wants improved background checks and a repeal of the NRA supported Dickey Amendment, which prevents the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from doing research on gun violence.
In Albany, the week began with Democrats lining up behind calls for stricter gun laws, whereas Senate Republicans passed bills aimed at improving school security.
Ellenville Central School District
At the February 27 Ellenville school board meeting, renewed concerns for safety were voiced by parents and students alike.
Latisha Brown, a former Ellenville student and a mother with children in the schools, appeared on behalf of the online coalition: Ellenville Parents Ensuring the Safety and Security of Our Children. Brown asked the board to come to the forum Community Unity and Care: What Can You Do? in the Elementary Cafeteria on March 12 at 6 p.m. to discuss the issues of school shooters, guns and safety for students.
At Ellenville, the central aspect of current and future school defense lies in a very close relationship with the Ellenville Police Department. The fact that armed police patrol the village throughout the school day, and the police department is less than three minutes away from the cluster of Ellenville schools, gives Superintendent of Schools Lisa Wiles a foundation for defensive efforts.
However, she has indicated that more will be done. "We are looking at bulletproof glass windows and doors," she said. "It’s expensive, but if we arrange to do this as part of a Capital Project, we can get state aid to cover much of the cost."
Looking past bulletproof windows, Wiles and her team are also looking at entranceways. Superintendent Wiles has suggested that along with bulletproof glass, some, perhaps all, of the entrances will receive upgrades.
Another big positive for the district is that the President of the Board of Education is Phil Mattracion, who is also Chief of the Ellenville Police. No surprise then that drills and training for an "active shooter" event have become regular features of the school year.
Recently, Mattracion noted that certain preventive technologies, like the simple "door stopper" — a device that holds a door shut against an intruder, are not allowed in New York, for safety reasons. Keeping someone out could easily flip over to keeping kids in — trapped inside a room in a building set on fire.
In fact, there are few simple answers to the problem posed by the threat of active shooters. Take the emotive issue of arming teachers. On this issue, Mattracion has voiced clear and consistent opinions — he has cautioned against arming teachers. He has noted that the Ellenville Police are trained to shoot anyone they see carrying a weapon when they enter an active shooter situation. Would they know that someone with a gun was a teacher? Momentary confusion can be fatal in such tension-racked moments.
Some teachers in Ellenville that we were able to contact were not supportive of the idea of being armed. Some, like Ms. Rowan, high school art teacher, point to the basic differences between most teachers and trained police officers. "If you start blurring those lines between enforcer and educator, then the roles mix and that worries me because that’s asking not just something different from a particular teacher to carry a gun but that’s sort of changing the role of education. And it’s changing our relationships with our students because carrying a gun is inherently a certain relationship with power."
Another Ellenville teacher, who requested anonymity, said "Arming the teachers? I think you have a lot of liability. First of all, it’s a very, very expensive process to educate, whether you’re educating one teacher or ten teachers, it’s long, long process … Just understanding a firearm could be anywhere from 50 to 100 hours of just training."
Mr. Trombley, the high school chorus director was supportive of gun ownership. "I don’t have a problem with people owning guns," he said. "I don’t have a problem with people buying them, if they buy them legally and if they’re trained. People can have as many guns as they want." However, he added, "For teachers it’s a different story, and it could definitely be a problem … Somebody might get hurt who might be on the good side."
Rowan continued, and expressed her doubts on using a firearm effectively. "If the New York Police Department is having problems, I don’t care how good I feel about myself and my accuracy, I’m probably going to guess that no, I’m not going to be able to do it well. Would I feel comfortable carrying a gun? No. No. Not at all." Rowan adds another aspect to this discussion, "And during a lock down, what if I had students who were panicking, knocking on my door, what happens if I overreact to that? You know, what happens, I mean there’s all those what-ifs and we run through those scenarios in our head."
This is a key point — hair trigger decisions, literally, in a terrifyingly acute situation in which mistakes are going to be lethal.
Moving to the concept of having armed guards on school campuses brought other responses. Rowan was uneasy about various aspects of this idea. "I do have a problem where we sort of normalize this. I know we’re dealing with a reality. But it’s one that I’m not sure about, I have to admit, in terms of the armed guards. I do have to say that schools are sort of public facilities with multiple entrances and exits, and how do we have those armed guards, which are supposed to act as deterrents, right, that’s the idea. In order for something to be a deterrent, it has to feel intimidating. The problem is, is now you have that intimidation felt everywhere."
Mattracion points to a grim statistic from the FBI: as many as 46% of armed security guards that engaged in shooting at someone have been killed or seriously wounded themselves.
So, to return to where we began here, Wiles and Mattracion are very well aware of the dangers and are seeking ways to mitigate. Ellenville police, fire and ambulance have run a full drill, and in the past year or so, there have been a couple of incidents that set off all the alarms and brought lockdown at the schools, and immediate police response. Wiles has also noted that in an emergency, the surveillance cameras in the schools can be directly monitored by the police.
Rowan concluded, "We know school is supposed to be a safe place, and that safety has to also include the cultural climate of that school… I think there are many things being discussed and on the table that are a whole lot more effective than arming teachers or even having armed guards."
Pine Bush Central School District
"Florida shook a lot of people," said Donna Geidel, the Pine Bush assistant superintendent for instruction, at the February 28 school board meeting. Parents want to know what’s being done to protect children in the district, and the old levels of security are no longer enough.
At every opportunity, Superintendent Tim Mains assures people that security is constantly being assessed and revised. The urgency felt by the parents, Mains repeats at board meeting, is felt equally by district officials who are responsible for more than 5,000 students, hundreds of staff members and any member of the public on school property.
Pine Bush High School is big and diverse, so although school nurse Jill Gribbin told the board recently she sensed "tremendous anxiety" among the students, others kids feel secure, confident that the staff has their back.
On a clear, chilly afternoon this week, on the street in front of the high school, senior Kevin O’Brien said, "I feel safe here."
O’Brien, a point guard on the school’s very successful basketball team, said his impression is that the staff is alert and capable of heading off trouble before it happens. He isn’t opposed to arming teachers, but would want guns in the hands of people who "knew what they were doing" so they wouldn’t endanger students. If teachers were properly trained, he’d have confidence in them, O’Brien said.
The right hands are crucial. Mains said he overheard a girl say that one of her teachers couldn’t even find student essays let alone keep track of a weapon. Mains, himself, doesn’t object to guns in the schools. But he would limit them to law enforcement officers. He’s in line with the New York State United Teachers union which takes the position that arming teachers is "impractical and misguided."
The state Schools Boards Association believes local solutions to security are best, but state and federal governments should provide more aid.
Money is an issue in Pine Bush, which would have to put officers in seven buildings. In Orange County, just one officer would run more than $100,000 a year, and the state stopped paying for school officer’s years ago, Mains said.
Other suggestions are also expensive and time consuming. One parent, Michele Robinholt, presented the board with a list of items that included metal detectors, fingerprinting, each with drawbacks beyond financing. Metal detectors, for example, would require pulling some of the security crew away from other assignments and chew up much precious time, Mains said. He’s only got students for about six and a half hours a day as it is. Another of Robinholt’s ideas is already on the district’s to do list. Secure entryways will be a part of an extensive building repairs and upgrades project valued at more than $50 million. The district will ask voters to approve the project this November, but even if the work is OK’d, it won’t be finished overnight.
One of Robinholt’s proposals, however, may be achievable. She wanted to know if the board could arrange a live-streamed public forum with school officials, the Orange County Sheriff’s Office and the Town of Crawford Police to discuss school safety.
Mains, who regularly convenes building safety teams, said he may bring up the idea at a meeting. In addition to meeting with his staff, Mains routinely checks in with local police officials and the Orange County Sheriff Carl Dubois. Both Chris Passudetti, president of the Pine Bush Teachers Association, and Dominick Blasko, chief of the Crawford Police Department, credit Mains for his attention to safety and willingness to hear from different points of view.
For now, Pine Bush will rely on its official greeters who assess every visitor, its security staff present in every district school, cameras and other technological aids, a staff well aware of safety procedures, and the heightened sense of vigilance in the community. Mains will likely add lock-out, shelter-in-place and active shooter drills to precautions already in place.
Although Passudetti, Mains and O’Brien say they know of no student plans to participate in demonstrations scheduled over the next few weeks, something could materialize. Mains said the district would see what develops. "I would not endorse or condemn," such activities, he said. "It’s free speech."
Rondout Central School District
RVCSD Superintendent Rosario Agostaro said to a February 22 board meeting that, "Currently there is discussion at the national level about arming teachers and administrators. Let me state unequivocally: under my leadership teachers will NEVER be armed. It is the dumbest idea that I’ve heard in my 30-year educational career. I want teachers to teach and students to learn," said Agostaro.
"Our school resource officer partnership is rather unique in Ulster," said Agostaro. "Only two other institutions have implemented the program. We are fortunate to have two dedicated officers assisting our students, staff and community."
Some students were not so charitable. "We have two officers," said one student board member who wished to remain anonymous. "For what? Three schools. The Florida shooting took less than four minutes. Would our officers even be able to get there in time?"
Students noted that the schools had been holding lock-down drills about twice a semester.
On its website, RVCSD last week announced new security protocols:
"Please be advised that we are updating our safety protocols at the high school for parents and visitors… When entering the vestibule at the welcome center, please follow the signs to show your identification through the window to the attendance person. If you are picking up your child, you may have a seat in the vestibule and your child will be called down and exit the building with you. If you need to drop off something for your child, please have it labeled with their name, leave it in the vestibule and we will bring it in the building and call down your child. If you have a meeting scheduled, please wait in the vestibule until it is verified and you will be asked to wait in the lobby until being escorted to your location. Thank you for your cooperation and assistance. Your child’s safety is our number one priority."
Agostaro said that the district continues "to focus on the philosophy that, ‘If you see something, say something.’"
The RVCSD has individual school and building safety plans as well as a district-wide plan. These plans, said the superintendent, serve as a guide to address the various needs in buildings and schools; such as lockdown procedures, evacuations, drills, safety protocols, and personnel assignments.
Members of the district-wide safety team attend research-based workshops and share best practices learned, listen to webinars and frequently meet with law enforcement.
Over a three-year period, said Agostaro, the district has partnered with the Ulster County Emergency Response team in developing and practicing active shooter drills. The district conducts regular audits to evaluate and analyze the effectiveness of school safety and security plans.
The district, said Agostaro," has created strong and effective partnerships with the Ulster County Sheriff’s Office, the Ulster County Sheriff’s K-9 unit, and several mental health organizations."