The New Paltz school community seemed to be of one mind at the February 21 school board meeting, the first after the Florida school shooting that killed 17. The one thought which pervaded comment and discussion was that gun violence, particularly against children, must be stopped; how that thought is being translated into action varies more widely. It was one of the first topics discussed during a meeting which brought out so many people to the high school auditorium that attendees were sitting on the floor and listening from the doorways.
High school senior Caleb Sheedy is organizing a walkout in solidarity with the shooting survivors for March 14, when students throughout the nation plan on leaving the hallowed halls at 10 a.m. for 17 minutes. “Will we be next?” is the question on students’ minds, he said; there are enough guns in the United States for every resident to possess one, yet less than a third have any at all. 246 students have died in such school shootings in the past 18 years, he said, and “those mass shooters would not have killed as many people with a knife.”
Sheedy had previously met with administrators about the walkout, and “was told it could end in violence.” He cited a recent walkout in Kingston where no such violence occurred, and asked trustees to help find a solution. “We’re bringing change with us,” he said.
It’s clear that no small number of adults in the community support this protest; a letter in support signed by 75 was presented to trustees for their inspection. “Please join us,” said Aimee Spring Cecil to them and administrators, and consider allowing a walkout of longer than that 17 minutes.
Others who spoke in support included parents Kimiko Link and Brian Riddell, who recalled being arrested protesting the Kent State shootings in 1970, and encouraged a different approach this time, thinking of it “in terms of a field trip.”
Those adults spoke before Sheedy’s comments, after which board president Michael O’Donnell said, “You’ll have our support.”
O’Donnell also read a response he received from congressman John Faso to a letter he sent asking the representative what he plans to do to protect children from shooters. The response focused on strengthening background checks, rendering the mentally ill ineligible to purchase firearms, and raising the minimum age, which has been a popular strategy as the Florida shooter was 19 years old. “If you think that response was inadequate,” O’Donnell said, “please let the congressman know.”
Grace Morrissey urged board members to ensure that any students who chose not to participate also been given due respect for that choice.
Whichever administrators gave Sheedy the impression they were reluctant, Superintendent Maria Rice was anything but. Calling the protest a “brave thing to do, she said that “no student will be sanctioned … or criticized for not attending” the walkout.
Sheedy was not available immediately for an indepth interview about the walkout plans.
Rice has been trying to strengthen responses since the last such shooting, when a 15-year-old in Kentucky killed two and injured 15 more. In concert with town police chief Joseph Snyder and other members of the subcommittee which focuses on safety issues, she has come up with ideas that could help. They include placing three cameras at each of the four entrances approved for use: one for the parking area, another for the vestibule, and one more to get a closeup of the person seeking entry.
A variety of drills will be part of the school experience, including lockdown (when students hide in locked rooms) and lockout (during which school continues as usual, but a police perimeter prevents anyone unauthorized from getting anywhere near the buildings). A planned upgrade of card lock technology will resolve one flaw in lockouts: although card keys are disabled, physical keys still work. That upgrade will also allow a lockout to be enabled by administrators, rather than requiring a call to the vendor.
One type of lockdown the risks of which must be hammered out is when it occurs while students are in the halls between classes. Such a drill was actually scheduled to occur the day of this board meeting, but administrators cancelled it in recognition of how traumatic it might be due to the timing.
Grace Morrissey, during her public comments, expressed gratification for the knowledge that these plans were being reviewed, and even the knowledge that there are plans in place. According to Rice, there are actually two safety plans; one is public, but the other remains confidential to ensure its efficacy.
The superintendent also said that a school resource officer is being considered. She made these comments before it came to light that the SRO in Florida remained outside during the entire shooting incident, which lasted about four minutes; that officer has elected to retire rather than be suspended for his inaction.
A question-and-answer session for parents about school safety took place on February 27. Administrators and police officers were present.