Just how safe are our schools?
In light of recent mass school shootings and the energized activism that propelled Parkland, Florida school children onto national stages to demand action, school communities everywhere are once again asking that question.
After the Parkland massacre February 14, at least four Monroe County schools held forums in March to discuss the measures they’ve taken and to help reassure parents.
“In this day and age, it’s a concern for every parent,” said Colleen Taylor of Greece, who has two children attending Greece Odyssey High School.
This year alone, some schools have piled on additional safeguards, such as hiring a school resource officer – a trained police officer stationed in the school – or installing a phone and online hotline to report problems such as a troubled student who might be fomenting an idea of doing someone harm.
Within the last year some have moved to more elaborate admission systems, requiring people to have their IDs matched to computer files before they can be allowed past a security door.
New standards in school design are also being considered so that visitors are held in a secure vestibule before they’re granted admission.
Chris Barrow, security officer for Monroe-Orleans BOCES, was a guest on the Wheatland-Chili School District panel discussion on school safety held March 2. He brings with him 25 years as a police officer and detective in Middletown, Connecticut, and several years overseeing the safety of 20,000 students in Beaufort County, South Carolina.
On the panel and in a recent interview Barrow described one of the tactics he uses and recommends to others to help schools remain vigilant. When he visits one of the 10 BOCES locations, he sometimes shows up wearing a sweatshirt and ball cap instead of a sports jacket and ID lanyard. He walks around the building trying doors to see whether he can get in, whether someone notices and whether anyone will approach him to see what he’s up to.
Every mass shooting incident, as tragic as it might be, can be instructional for other schools as they continue to finetune their security systems, Barrow said. Because of his background, he often
serves as an informal security advisor for other districts, and recommends schools rely on what he calls a system of “cards, cameras and cars.” That means people have to swipe a key card or show an ID card to be allowed into a school building, security cameras are in use inside and outside the school buildings, and law enforcement or security service cars are parked in a visible spot outside the school.
A number of local schools have started to implement new visitor admission systems in which IDs are checked by computer to see whether the visitor has any issues on record that could result in being denied admission. One local engineering and architectural firm is planning a seminar on the need to include safety features in the design of school entrances.
While some schools have added to their security measures recently, they have been working on these issues for years.
“People are being trained all year long regardless of whether there are shootings going on in schools or not,” Taylor said of the Greece district. “They’re very proactive.”
State laws require schools to conduct regular lock-down drills and review their efforts. They also have to have a security and safety plan in place – many have the entire plan or a summary on the school web pages.
“My kids, unfortunately, have grown up in this era,” Taylor said.
Her son is now a senior and her daughter a freshman at Odyssey. The mass shooting that claimed 26 lives at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut happened when Taylor’s children were elementary students themselves. Lockdown drills and safety measures are just a fact of life for her children and their peers.
“These kids don’t know any differently. It’s been a thing in their lives.”
As president of the Parent Teacher Student Association at Odyssey and co-president of the PTA Council over all the Greece schools, Taylor is aware of many steps those schools have taken to increase safety over the years.
“With our schools, we always had Greece PD come in and read to kids. They were comfortable already with having the police in and out of the building. We did that purposefully so we would see them as a friendly presence. I think they don’t even pay attention to it.”
But others do, she noted. “When adults walk in and see an officer, they are more taken aback.”
Even with all that’s being done to keep children safe, more should be done, said Michael Borges, executive director of the New York State Association of School Business Officials.
Right after the Parkland shooting, the New York State Association of School Business Officials issued a five-point plan for improving safety in schools. Most of the points involved removing red tape on funding sources for security measures. With the Legislature about to close business for this session, only one item succeeded to any extent: continuing funding temporarily for metal detectors, cameras and secure entries. The organization had sought a permanent fund.
“Ultimately nothing got accomplished,” Borges said. After the Parkland shooting, many legislators condemned the violent act, but that didn’t translate to action, he said. “Legislators made efforts to pass legislation and get other items in the budget that would restrict access to guns and none of that stuff happened.”
What the business officials group was suggesting was much less politically charged than proposals for gun control, which seem to bring on a hornet’s nest of debate every time they’re mentioned. For instance, Borges explained, there’s a cap on pay for school resource officers of $30,000. To pay more – and thereby attract retired police officers who have been receiving greater compensation while working in law enforcement – a district has to obtain a waiver from the state education department.
The business officials group wants to eliminate the need for a waiver if a district wants to offer a higher rate of pay. This measure could actually end up saving money for districts in the long run, Borges said. Some districts, rather than submit to the limits on pay for school resource officers, contract with a local police or sheriff ’s department to provide security. But that costs much more.
“They could get a retired police officer for $50,000 instead of spending $90,000 to hire a full time cop for the school,” he said.
The current process for getting state funding for capital improvements to a building, including for security measures, often takes nine months, Borges said. His group wants staff added to the state Education Department who could expedite the process.
“Most of these things don’t require much more money or any money at all. It’s not a heavy lift,” Borges said. “If they wanted to do it, they could.”
Borges said the group will focus its lobbying efforts now on the pay issue for security officers. Meanwhile, the fine tuning goes on.
“All schools are good at protecting from the unknown, the outside attacker,” Barrow said.
They’re starting to get good at detecting threats from within, he said. Taylor notes that there’s been a shift in training staff on social and emotional issues.
“These kids have issues that they’re dealing with that we didn’t have years ago,” she said.
But like security measures, helping students with these tricky issues is an ongoing process involving lots of follow-up, such as surveying students to find out whether they have a trusted adult within the school to ask for help.
“You have to do the daily grind of making sure you’re reaching out and helping each and every student who is walking through your door each day,” Taylor said.