At the Highland Central School District’s regular Board of Education meeting on Tuesday, February 20, the school shooting in Parkland, Florida that had occurred days earlier was on everyone’s mind. After calling for a moment of silence for the victims and survivors, board President Alan Barone began the meeting with a statement. “This district will do whatever it takes to make sure our buildings are secure for our students and staff. I want to spread the word, that if someone hears something: say something. If you see something: say something. It’s very important. I’ve heard that there are issues going around on social media that our buildings may not be secure. That’s not the way to go about it, because if there’s an individual looking to do harm to our student body and staff, why put it out there? Come to one of us; come to the superintendent, or assistant superintendent, or building principal. We’re not going to sit back and let things happen. We’ll take a proactive approach to solve any issues we might have and try to prevent something like that from happening here. Every little bit will help.”
In the public comment session that followed Barone’s statement, a district resident spoke on the topic. Citing his military experience, he suggested that training be conducted for school staff on how to disarm an active shooter. “There are methods and techniques that can be used to disarm such a person to prevent tragedies. We have to look at reality; we live in a terrifying world. Whether it’s terrorists or somebody mentally ill, we just have to do anything and everything we can possible. Versus having just one security guard, maybe we should have two or three, with military law enforcement training. The best course of action is preventative; proactive. Some of us may say we don’t want any guns or firearms in school; I get scared just talking about it. But in reality, because of my military training, I think the best course of action sometimes is fire against fire. And we have to be open to researching that, and looking into it more. We have to see the reality for what it is.”
Board member Michael Bakatsias suggested the community member submit his suggestions to the board in writing for further review.
In the time allotted for monthly principals’ reports, Highland Elementary School Principal Joel Freer was asked by board president Barone about progress at the school with regard to securing all entrances. Freer noted that the lock on the door leading into the office from the vestibule had been changed but there has not yet been a buzzer installed; a security guard is stationed there, however. But in the evenings, he noted, when Scout troops and other community organizations are using the school buildings, the door has to be left open for them because there is no staff or security working at those times.
Board member Heather Welch asked Highland Middle School Principal Dan Wetzel about security at a back door to the middle school, noting that she “only brought the matter up because it had already been introduced into the discussion” that concerns about school security were circulating on social media. Wetzel responded that the door in question is open for teachers to use prior to 7:15 a.m., but is then locked, with the first kids not getting off the buses until 7:20 a.m. Staff members do not have a key to the building, it was noted; teachers arriving after 7:15 have to walk around to the front entrance. “The first responsibility is to have that door locked at 7:15,” Wetzel said. “Then as soon as we begin first period, the teacher who does announcements mans the front door so Will Sutton can go around and make sure every door to the building is secure. Then he makes that check again three or four times a day.”
Wetzel acknowledged that while the school is secured right before students arrive, anyone could theoretically come into the school before that time.
The question was raised by board member Bakatsias as to when security would be established at every entrance with automated controls to open and close doors. “I’m not clear on whether that’s scheduled to be done, or the funding for it… We have to get a handle on where we are with the [capital] project. If it’s not off the ground, we have other avenues to get aid, like we do with the buses.”
When Highland High School Principal Bill Zimmer was questioned about security at the high school entrances, he described a situation similar to that at the middle school, where two entrance doors at the high school, the front entrance and the doors by the cafeteria, are unlocked at 7:20 a.m. when students are allowed in and locked again at 7:40 a.m. when first period starts.
“Any [unlocked] entrance that staff or students use in the morning should be monitored at all times,” said Barone.
Board of Education student rep Dean Riley commented in his remarks that it was “really sad and scary” to see students his own age gunned down in the school shooting in Florida. But it’s not a time to feel a disconnect, he said, thinking this was something happening far away. “It’s encouraging to hear the students from that school and conversations we’ve had here discussing what to do; not just letting things happen but getting involved. I hope there is action taken by the government and we can pursue more secure policies.”