In light of a recent threatening message found by school officials written in chalk on the back of a bench at the playground, parents of children attending Woodstock Primary School turned out for the November 5 Onteora Central School District board of education meeting, held at the school, to hear a safety audit presentation on the facility.
Based upon parent complaints that not enough was done in a timely manner for the security of the children, district officials brought in safety expert Brenda McGuire to perform the audit. After spending a day touring the school, she pointed out problem areas with safety but overall gave the school a good report. “I’m excited to be here tonight, to tell you just how safe you are,” said McGuire, “I’ve been in hundreds of schools in my career and after that many times, you get a kind of feeling when you walk into a school…and when I came into this school last Thursday, I got such a great feeling from the staff, from the students. It’s such a sweet school and you are very safe.” She explained that a community is important to school safety and Woodstock school had a very healthy relationship between staff, parents, police and the surrounding community.
McGuire presented a five-page report that listed safety concerns, suggesting improvements that could be made to the facility. “Schools are not set up, especially schools this old, to really be as safe as we need them to be these days,” she said. “They’re welcoming places, totally open, and so what we need to do is look at the best way to make them as safe as possible.” Suggestions to strengthen security included manning a desk at the office window that would face the front entranceway so that person could see the ID of every person before being buzzed in, provide more fencing to the playground, additional staff during lunch and recess, staff ID and visitor badge enforcement, and a more efficient sign in sheet. McGuire said during recess, there could be up to six classes supervised by very few staff and with children she joked, “It’s like herding cats.”
But not all of the audit focused on facilities. McGuire said she witnessed vehicles driving past buses as they were loading children in the front of the school and suggested police ticket drivers because it’s highly unsafe. She also noticed that parents would become angry upon discovering they cannot use side doors during school hours. She suggested educating parents on basic safety rules.
The investigation regarding the threatening message has been turned over to the State police and is considered ongoing since the perpetrator has not been found. Some have assumed that a student wrote the message, the clues leading to that being misspelled words in chalk (children play with chalk during recess) and that a teacher was singled out. Superintendent Dr. Phyllis Spiegel-McGill said a police officer was hired for five days after the incident at a cost of approximately $1900. This was not a board decision, but administrative based on the health and safety of the school.
On Wednesday October 30, McGill held two meetings for parents with Woodstock Principal Dr. Kathleen O’Brien and two state police officers. Parents lashed out in anger accusing officials of shirking on security. During the Board of Education meeting, a few parents spoke politely. One, Marcus Ferrara, suggested that employee ID badges should have a scanning mechanism and volunteers should go through either a State or Federal screening process. “In answer to police presence, I see both sides…some don’t like the armed force, some do. Why don’t we have video surveillance and eliminate the gun?” he said.
Trustee Tony Fletcher said in light of the Sandy Hook incident where 26 children and staff were murdered, the district has been taking additional measures to assure children are safe. But, he said, it’s a tightrope walk. “Safety is paramount, we get that and I think that all of us are trying to balance between security versus liberty…and schools are supposed to be welcoming peaceful open places,” said Fletcher. “The change in our society with the increase in school shootings is causing us to change what has been a common approach to education.” He mentioned that some parents want more safety at the school, but some parents are upset about too much safety. “Leaving aside the name Woodstock, [that] we have an armed police presence at the school for five-to-nine year olds — again — says something pretty negative about the position we (as a community) found ourselves in.” Fletcher requested more emphasis on the mental health of students as a preventative measure. He said, “Not every kid can come here in perfect shape, we know that, and even as we look at safety and security, we look on that same level of social workers and psychologists.”
In other news…
• Trustee Rob Kurnit said he read that Hyde Park and Spackenkill school districts have rejected Federal funding connected to the Federal Race To The Top initiative. McGill said she checked with BOCES Superintendent Charles Khoury and there would be no difference in mandate changes, but will inquire about it more by calling the districts herself. Race to the Top includes Common Core Curriculum, new test standards and Annual Professional Performance Review (APPR). Onteora receives about $21,000 in Federal funding for Race To The Top, but spends significantly more to implement it.
• Trustees are looking into ways to bring Computer Science stem and code curriculum to the district. Trustee Dave McKeon said, “I’ve heard in this school and a lot of other schools that on offer are application training in Microsoft Word and Excel, etc., in business curriculum, and we don’t really get to coding and technology and development of software. So I’d like to know if we can have an audit of our courses and opportunities in this district to code, to develop database design, web design, etc., and if we don’t have that, how can we pursue it.”