Saugerties has resisted taking on the issue of school violence and violence against children in a serious manner. Incidents like the Newtown, Conn. school massacre have shown that school violence can happen anywhere. How do we stay aware and vigilant and defeat the notion of that cannot happen here? Can there be a discussion about school safety and protecting our children without hysteria and finger-pointing?
John Olsen, parent to four teenage boys who attend Saugerties High School, said he was not overly worried about that level of gun violence happening in a town like Saugerties. “Saugerties is not like Kingston or Newburgh,” he said. Comparisons to neighboring urban communities of Kingston and Newburgh are used to convey that Saugerties is somehow inherently safer for families and children. The New York Times reported that Newburgh led the state in crimes per capita and that violence involves youth more than ever before. However, violence is openly discussed in Newburgh schools, with classes designed specifically to discuss relevant issues such as gangs, gun violence and school safety. Family of Woodstock works with the Saugerties school district on anger management education, but teenage Saugertesians say the issues of school safety and violence in schools are not openly discussed.
Police Chief Joe Sinagra found that this new world of school violence was initially created by the Columbine shootings and reaffirmed by Newtown. “That level of violence is now a mainstay in our society, which is unfortunate,” Sinagra said. Yet, Sinagra readily admitted that prior to the 2005 Hudson Valley Mall shooting, in which two were injured by a shooter toting a Hesse-47 assault rifle, he believed a mass shooting simply couldn’t happen here.
The chief offered several ideas on how to profile potential violent offenders and how to protect our schools with armed force, specifically mentioning the training of teachers in handling firearms. While arming teachers has been put into action in Texas and Utah, New York is battling with basic civil liberties and gun rights.
On the first day of school, Brandon Schoonmaker watched as his daughter, Harleigh, climbed on the bus to go to kindergarten. Harleigh is a survivor of congenital diaphragmatic hernia, a birth defect that every year claims the lives of thousands of newborn babies. Having defeated almost insurmountable odds, Schoonmaker now worries that he could lose his daughter forever from school violence. “All the clichés pop into your head. ‘Oh, that will never happen here.’ Every other place this has ever happened had some poor optimistic sap saying the same thing.”
Schoonmaker feels Saugerties is prone to magical thinking when it comes to school safety. After the hype of Newtown died down, “reforms became de-prioritized.” For Schoonmaker, the most glaring failure in reform is found in the school manuals, the Code of Conduct and the Student Bill of Rights. Nowhere in those documents is anything related to a gun mentioned, except to say they are not allowed in school.
Saugerties Superintendent Seth Turner sympathized with parents like Schoonmaker, saying that after the Newtown massacre, parents had new anxieties and a grim realism of school violence. Turner mentioned security enhancements being put in place in schools after the Newtown massacre but did not specify what those enhancements were.
Meditating on the issue of violence against children, Turner was adamant that in the case of Adam Lanza [in Newtown] or with the crisis of child abuse, the community needs to be more vigilant. “I ask that we, the people of Ulster County, please take some time to recognize that collectively we can help protect children to a far greater extent if we educate the community on how to identify and report child abuse. If you see something – say something.”
There is a battle between actions and words, between the idyllic family town and a society that confronts and deals with real and possible demons. Openly discussing school and child violence within the community would trump any political debate over gun control and possibly provide Saugerties youth with a real sense of safety.
With the case of violence in rural schools like Saugerties, the focus on guns is a distraction. Saugerties citizens have rallied against the SAFE Act but have never mentioned reforms to protect children in schools, not even reforms that would include guns in schools. CityLabs, an offshoot publication of The Atlantic, found that violence in urban schools is seen as group behavior (gang related) and not taken personally, while violence in rural schools has basis in victimization and is therefore very personal. Arguably, victimization is at the core of child abuse and neglect where the perpetrator continues the violent cycle they suffered as children.
If the argument against the SAFE Act shifted to protecting our schools and our children, it might possibly make gun rights a more universal concern in New York. The SAFE Act came into law as a response to the Newtown massacre, so what better way to fight the logic than to co-opt the cause – protecting our schools and children.