“If I didn’t do everything in my power to protect your children every single day,” said schools superintendent Seth Turner, “I could never live with myself in the event that something happened.”
Speaking to a crowd of over 200 assembled in the Saugerties High School cafeteria last Wednesday evening for a public forum on school safety, Saugerties police chief Joseph Sinagra said he would like to see local schoolteachers trained to carry firearms in case of an active shooter on school grounds. Sinagra’s comments came in response to a question about metal detectors. Sinagra said he believed metal detectors weren’t a good use of district funds.
“Everything costs money,” the police chief said. “There’s nothing more valuable to us than our children. But we have to spend our money wisely. Now, I’m going to dig myself a hole with the school board tonight when I say this. If we’re really going to have an honest dialogue about how we protect our children, let’s talk about teaching teachers to carry firearms.”
Sinagra’s comments were met with loud applause. The meeting, which included district administrators and the principals from all four elementary schools and the junior-senior high school, had been moved to the cafeteria from the media center when it became clear to school officials that there would be more attendees than expected.
If someone was looking to bring a weapon into a school, metal detectors wouldn’t necessarily stop them, said Sinagra. “If I’m going to come into this school armed, I’m going to avoid the metal detectors,” he said. “Or I’m going to sneak in here at night and I’m going to plant a firearm someplace.”
The opposing view was offered by school officials, including high school principal Thomas Averill. “I need to share an opposing view to chief Sinagra as far as my teachers being armed,” said Averill, who like Sinagra received a generous round of applause. “My teachers have an awesome responsibility. And if you don’t know, it’s an awesome responsibility to be in that classroom and teach those children. I’m all in for security, armed guards, the SRO [School Resource Officer]. But our teachers have to be in the classroom.”
Revisiting the safety plan
The size of the crowd at the forum presented a stark contrast to that at a public hearing on the district’s new safety plan, which drew no comments at a school-board meeting a month earlier. Board president Bob Thomann expected the subject to be revisited at a special board meeting this Tuesday evening.
The safety plan includes twelve fire and emergency drills each school year, including four with evacuations through a secondary exit. The plan also calls for the district to establish protocols for early intervention and conflict resolution, as well as what to do in cases of bomb threats, armed intruders, hostage and kidnapping, natural disasters, mass illness, bus accidents, and structural and system failures.
Superintendent Seth Turner, who served as chairperson of last week’s forum, said that he was pleased about the public engagement in the conversation about school safety despite the circumstances which had brought people out. “I’m glad they were here tonight,” Turner said. “We want to know their opinions. We have to work together on these issues.”
School safety measures
Turner shared some information about existing school safety measures. The ground-floor windows in all four elementary schools and most on those at the junior-senior high school campus have been strengthened with safety and security window films, a product of the 3M Company in Minnesota.
“They won’t call it bulletproof because if there are high-ballistic rifles those things could potentially still go through,” Turner said. “But a smaller .22 or a shotgun would likely be stopped, and a larger bullet would be slowed down.”
The district is also hoping to move ahead with enhanced video surveillance and other security upgrades. The program is in limbo while funding for school safety is discussed at the state level.
Though it was not without moments of tension, the safety forum was largely civil, due in part to the format. Attendees were encouraged to write questions on index cards, which were addressed to the panel by deputy schools superintendent Lawrence Mautone. School officials were able to tackle some, but not all, of the questions.
“What we don’t share is our building emergency response plans,” said Turner. “We don’t want the bad guys to know all of our practices. [But] we practice evacuation drills, lockdown drills, lockout drills, fire drills, high-winds drills, go-home-early drills.”
Most drills occur in periods 1-3 and 7-8 to avoid lunch breaks. “We usually don’t do a drill during lunch, because as you can see this is a big lunch room that holds a lot of people,” said Averill, “and it would be disastrous for us to leave the food at the table and try to come back in and [have students] scramble to find their place.” The district took note of this issue during a few alarms that “inadvertently went off” during lunch hours.
Law enforcement investigates
The extensive lengths the district and local law enforcement will go to investigate when a student is believed by classmates or others to pose a safety risk were also revealed. “A student said something that some other students took as a potential threat towards the student body or towards the school,” said Sinagra of an incident that took place February 15. “The school immediately conducts an investigation. The student is asked to leave the school. Parents are contacted. The police are contacted. We conduct a criminal investigation.”
When a student has the means and capability to carry out a shooting, Sinagra said, a process is followed. “There’s nothing more intrusive to a parent than having the police come to your house and say, ‘We need to speak to you and we need to speak to your child,’” he explained. “We try to be very delicate when we handle these situations. But we also know because we’ve seen it time and time again through school shootings that if we don’t investigate it as law enforcement, we miss the [red] flags, we miss the key points of the investigation, and this is how shootings happen.”
It doesn’t always mean the student planned on committing violence, but Sinagra said it was important to carry out an investigation whether a student is planning violence or not. “Sometimes our students are bullied and they overreact to a comment,” he said. “This is exactly what happened on Thursday. The student had no intentions whatsoever of hurting anybody. Once we determine that, we stop our investigation.”
The district’s best chance at preventing school violence is by helping students deal with their feelings in a constructive way, said Turner. During his time as superintendent, the Rockland County Psychiatric Center, with which the district has a relationship, has doubled its number of school psychologists from two to four, and increased its number of social workers from one to three.
“We’re educators,” Turner said. “We’re here to teach and help students develop self-discipline.” Turner hoped the district’s after-school options can also be beneficial to a student’s emotional well-being. “Do we ever have to deal with adolescents who have conversations? Yes, we do,” Turner said. “Do we ever have to deal with the rumor mill that gets on steroids? Yes, we do. I speak on behalf of every staff member who works in this school district, and I mean it when I say this: If I didn’t do everything in my power to protect your children every single day, I could never live with myself in the event that something happened.”
“They’re not going away”
After the meeting, the superintendent said he hoped it had been a success. “I just had a woman come up to me that is getting assistance for her son that would not have been getting that assistance had she not been here tonight,” he said. “For that it was beneficial. A lot of people walked out of here getting information about what we do for safety and security that they otherwise would not have known.”
School officials and students have been discussing plans for awareness-raising events and tributes to the victims in Florida, including a nationwide action on Wednesday, March 14, and another on Friday, April 20, the 19th anniversary of the massacre at Columbine High School in Colorado.
“The students have started to engage the administration at the secondary level about this,” Turner said. “We, the school officials, want to support the students in this endeavor. We want to help the kids coordinate something so it’s done in a safe fashion and it’s not just mayhem, and that they also get to make their points.”
There are some who believe the incident in Parkland, Florida on Valentine’s Day could be a turning point in the national conversation about gun violence and school safety. If that’s so, Turner said, it would be because kids are having their voices heard. “The students are leading the way, and that to me is making the difference,” Turner said, “They’ve put a face on this tragedy, and they’re not going away.”