Stricter school security debated after Newtown

A New Paltz Police officer patrols the lobby of the New Paltz High School in May 1999 just weeks after the Columbine High School tragedy, which took place on April 20, 1999. (photo by Lauren Thomas)

A New Paltz Police officer patrols the lobby of the New Paltz High School in May 1999 just weeks after the Columbine High School tragedy, which took place on April 20, 1999. (photo by Lauren Thomas)

Schools have become increasingly secure places in recent decades, with access restrictions and visitor sign-in the norm, and in-school police officers common. But in the wake of the tragic school shooting in Newtown, Conn., some wonder if there’s more we can do. Is it true, as NRA president Wayne LaPierre put it, that the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun? If so, one answer would be to expand funding for armed police officers in schools. Local opinion varies widely, from some who would like to see “surveillance everywhere” to others who call such ideas an “overreaction.”

“I think everybody’s concerned with security,” said Ulster BOCES superintendent Charles Khoury. “Parents lend us their most precious, precious resource — their children. So Columbine, Newtown, any school shooting, any issue is always a time to pause and reflect and say, are we doing everything we can do?”

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Local communities react

Some districts already have armed school resource officers (SROs) at their high schools. More had them when federal funds were available throughout the 2000s. Their role is usually explained as community relations, increasing trust between teens and cops. No local elementary schools have SROs.

In Highland, community reaction to the Newtown shootings was strong. More than 100 parents attended a safety forum on Jan. 3. The consensus was clear.

“For the most part, parents — that group of parents — were in agreement with having armed security in the buildings,” said Highland school board president Al Barone.

On Jan. 22, Highland School Board members voted to hire an SRO on a temporary basis until the end of the year for roughly $15,000. Before autumn, they’ll need to decide if they can afford to renew that contract.

Kingston City School District has three SROs and a $200,000 school security budget.

“Kingston has had an articulated safety plan for a long time — and we’ve had school resource officers for a while,” said Nora Scherer, a retired teacher and the current vice president of the Kingston School Board. “I can’t tell you how parents are feeling about it right now. I can tell you that I think that armed guards in every school is an overreaction — I personally feel that.” She said gun control legislation and attention to mental health issues would be better solutions. So far, Kingston’s response to safety concerns has been to restrict access during dismissal, which some complain has led to traffic congestion on Broadway, one of the city’s busiest streets.

In New Paltz, parents expressed a wide variety of opinions at a public safety forum in early January. According to school board president Patrick Rausch, “You had the one parent saying, ‘Don’t do anything, the school already feels like a prison.’ You had the other parent saying, ‘I’m ready to go get a gun and stand outside the school and protect the kids. ’”

Rausch doesn’t think armed guards would be a good fit.

“I believe that the feeling of the school personnel is that they really don’t want an armed guard, because I think the issue there is — again — finances,” he said. “If we have to pay and hire an armed guard, we’re going to have to lay off a teacher.”

New Paltz school officials are still learning the details of the state’s new gun control package, but they hope it will include some funding for extra surveillance and security equipment, including a buzz-in system for visitors.

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