In the wake of last month’s tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., parents in New Paltz came to a forum to brainstorm new ways to keep kids safe in the classroom, to vent and to seek answers from police and school officials.
Highland’s schools also held a school safety meeting last week. “In light of what happened three weeks ago in Newtown, Conn., it’s changed the atmosphere of school districts throughout the country,” said Al Barone, the Highland school board president.
At the New Paltz meeting, worried moms and dads asked superintendent Maria Rice to step up security at the schools, possibly installing a silent alarm or panic button to alert cops if something went wrong. A handful of parents asked about armed guards in the schools. But most wanted at least stronger front-desk check-in measures and security cameras in place.
“I’m all for the buzzer system. I’m all for surveillance everywhere. I think if you’re doing the right thing you have nothing to worry about,” said Allison Loyer, a mom with two children at Duzine Elementary School.
For more than a decade, ever since the state Safe Schools Against Violence in Education law came online, New Paltz’s school district has had a safety plan in place to protect students. It’s changed a lot in the last 12 or 13 years as police and administrators have worked out kinks. Right now it calls for a single point of entry for everyone coming into the schools. Teachers and high school students have ID badges that allow them access to the building.
According to Rice and New Paltz police chief Joe Snyder, undercover cops test for weaknesses and do random spot checks of the buildings from time to time – posing as parents and trying to find inappropriate ways to weasel into the schools.
Not everything about the plan can be or is publicly known. Parents expressed frustration that the superintendent was reluctant to agree to give reports of weaknesses that the undercover cops found. “We have to keep some things close to the vest,” Rice replied. “We don’t want to give certain people ideas.”
A vast majority of parents favored more stringent security, and some people, like Gardiner resident Linda Geary, supported reinstating a ban on military-style, semi-automatic assault rifles.
Kim Kimble and one other parent who spoke at the school safety forum felt like the call for increased security went a little far. “I think that we’re just really living in fear here – unnecessary fear. It is a tragedy, and my heart goes out to Newtown,” Kimble said. “But if you look at the governmental statistics, we are safer now than we were when we grew up.”
Monday’s meeting included county undersheriff Frank Faluotico, New York State Police captain Robert Nuzzo and local police chief Snyder.
Undersheriff Faluotico urged parents to not give into the social-media rumor mill. He encouraged them to check official services like Nixle or www.nyalert.gov for what was really occurring. If a school were closed, one of those services would let parents know.
Local police are still waiting for the official reports about what exactly happened in Newtown. The undersheriff said it was important for police and school administrators to have the facts, not speculation fueled by early, errant media reports. “We will be sitting down in a roundtable discussion,” he promised. “We’ll work on a county plan.”
Snyder told parents that – even despite any new security measures – a horrific shooting could still take place. “We’re not necessarily going to stop an ambush or a spree shooting,” the police chief said. “It’s a surprise. Nobody knows. Nobody knows if somebody is going to walk through the door right now.” Snyder said.
The Highland school district intends to provide administrators special training with the Lloyd police to help them recognize and deal with “active shooters” and a gunman scenario.
Visitors to Highland schools will now be required to show ID, and the district is planning to do more lockdown drills this year. Highland is also looking into allowing armed guards – possibly carrying guns — into its schools.
In New Paltz, Rice said they’d immediately get started trying to install a new buzzer system and cameras installed, hopefully paid for with alternative funding like grants. Rice noted that state troopers, county deputies and New Paltz cops have stepped up patrols and walkthroughs of the school buildings. “We’re hoping this is going to become a very natural process,” she said.
Sheriff Paul VanBlarcum and district attorney Holley Carnright both want citizens to write in with their concerns or ideas about school safety. You can reach them at firstname.lastname@example.org or by old-fashioned post at the sheriff’s main office in Kingston. Parents who’d like to receive emergency police alerts through Nixle should text their zip code to the number 888777. That will enroll your cell phone to receive free emergency updates for your area.