Saugerties board, citizens seek clarity on school safety measures at forum

Citizens meet at Saugerties High School to address school safety.

Spurred by perceived social media threats leveled by Saugerties High student Connor Chargois, 18, about 70 citizens came to the Cafeteria at Saugerties High School March 6 to make suggestions and brainstorm in small groups about the strengths and weaknesses of the district’s safety measures and structural safety of the system’s buildings.

The group included members of the Board of Education, district parents, Saugerties High students, the Town Supervisor, the Chief of Police, town board members, county legislators and concerned members of the community.

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“We have the ability to be proactive, rather than reactive after something has happened,” said school board member Katie Emerson-Hoss.

But attendee’s questions regarding the details of the Chargois case and the course of action taken by the school district in the situation were left unanswered. At the beginning of the meeting, a woman who did not wish to be identified stood up and asked if the Chargois case would be discussed, saying that it was the “only reason [she was] there.”

“We can’t talk about that for obvious reasons — if anything is said to compromise that case, it would compromise the board,” said Board of Education Vice President Jim Mooney. “You have to understand that we can’t compromise our students by discussing an ongoing investigation.”

Chargois was arrested February 27, along with his father Bruce Chargois, 58, six days after denying that they had weapons in their possession. After executing a search warrant, police found an arsenal of firearms, including a fully automatic Uzi and an AR-15, along with homemade weapons. Connor Chargois was released after posting bond on his $10,000 bail. The father was released on his own recognizance.

The Saugerties School Board hosted a similar meeting on Feb. 21, when an earlier perceived threat to the district was deemed unfounded by police; one citizen who had attended this initial meeting felt that the concerns that parents had asked about had been left unanswered.

“I am asking for a response from the last meeting,” he said. “I had to ask a student [about my questions. We want] something tangible we can tell our kids. We’re trying to dampen fires — we don’t want more meetings and for the Freeman to go out [and rile the town up.]”

Evaluating the schools

Perceived strengths of Mount Marion Elementary School noted by attendees included the “red light, green light” system used by teachers, where “red light” is a code word used by teachers for a missing student; the single-floor layout of the school and the ID system used, where students hand in licenses to a school greeter upon entry. The check in process at Riccardi was praised, which requires visitors to hold both a badge and form of ID; the double door system at Cahill, comprised of a locking door at the entrance and another following set of doors, was also mentioned. Another safety asset at Cahill was its policy on using the school as a polling place, which cannot take place on school days. Grant Morse School’s “unique” pick up system, requiring parents to go to a side entrance by the gym, was also praised. The open talks about recent events and emergency drills that have taken place in the last month were noted at Saugerties High.

“We figured out the strengths just from what we see walking down the halls everyday,” Saugerties High School senior Alex Horton said. “Last year, we had doors [that were] very flimsy and old, loose handles, and this year we see new doors, very solid, that we tested out for ourselves.”

Students also brought up a need for clear information from teachers on what to do during drills, saying that “teachers aren’t very vocal about what we’re supposed to do and are very apprehensive.”

Also raised as potential weaknesses in the district’s safety front were the meager amount of drills that had taken place, the lack of doors that lock from the inside at certain schools, substitute teachers without keys to the classrooms they’re using, the high school’s open campus that accommodates dog walkers and passers-by during the day, and hall passes that are not often checked thoroughly by hall monitors. Many parents suggested fixes that would provide more shelter to students during potential incidents, like “shelters-in-place” and boosters to improve cell phone service at Riccardi and other schools without regular phone service. A repeated suggestion was an increase in counselors within the district, who are currently shared by district schools.

Board members say that they plan to review the suggestions made during the meeting, and consider them during the 2018-2019 budgeting process.

Possible additional charges

Police Chief Joseph Sinagra did not confirm whether either Chargois was under police surveillance presently and revealed no new information revealed in the ongoing police investigation.

“Everything has going out to the lab right now,” said Sinagra. “Once that gets back it will be more clear what additional charges will be. That’s what we’re waiting on.”

Both Sinagra and Superintendent Seth Turner declined to comment on why Chargois Jr. was allowed to attend school between Feb. 21 and Feb 26, in the midst of an active police investigation.

“Every threat is thoroughly investigated and always has been,” said Turner when asked if this series of events would change how future threats to the district are handled. “I don’t think we’ll see a change.”

In a separate interview, Bruce Chargois’ attorney, Thomas Melanson, said enough of the case had been talked about in public. “I think this has already been discussed in the papers and I want to keep it in the courts where it should be,” said Melanson. “The judge did the right thing, the judge followed the law.”

According to Melanson, attorney Cappy Weiner is separately representing Connor Chargois.

“All students, regardless of their background should be treated equally,” said school board member Damion Ferraro during the comment period. “If you do the crime, you should do the time.”

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