Onteora forum looks at measures to avoid tragedy

Phoenicia principal Linda Sella, Woodstock principal Scott Richards and middle school principal Jennifer O’Connor at Onteora Safety Meeting. (Photo by Dion Ogust)

At the Onteora Central School District’s March 12 school safety forum at the middle/high school in Boiceville, administrators said they were not considering arming teachers, searching kids’ backpacks, or installing metal detectors at school entrances, statements which elicited applause from the sizeable audience. Among the topics discussed were lockdown drills, procedures for helping students with mental health issues, and the law enforcement presence at schools.

The forum was organized in the wake of the deaths of 17 high school students in Parkland, Florida, followed by the recent arrest of a former Onteora student who made comments about “shooting the school” on social media. The young man has apologized, saying the post was taken out of context and not intended as a threat. His charge was downgraded from a felony to a misdemeanor.

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Referring to the incident, Superintendent Victoria McLaren said at the forum, “I’d like to thank everyone for their cooperation, including people who reported it. I’m grateful they took the initiative because they saw something they felt uncomfortable with.” She had considered it urgent to communicate the facts immediately to parents before rumors took hold, but not all parents’ email addresses were correct. She asked parents to visit the parents’ portal online and make sure the district has current email addresses.

McLaren said a district-wide safety plan is provided on the Onteora website, but more detailed plans for each building are not being made public, for security reasons, although they have been submitted to the state education department and law enforcement agencies.

Currently the exterior doors to all buildings are locked during the school day, and admission through the front door requires a visitor to buzz for entry. Either an entry kiosk is staffed, or video cameras enable staff to see the person requesting admission. If the visitor is not recognized — or sometimes even if they are — identification is required. Teachers carry fobs that enable them to open the locked doors.

McLaren said the Smart Schools Bond Act has awarded the district $870,000, which will be applied to implementing surveillance camera systems in the elementary schools. Cameras are already in place in the middle/high school.

With regard to lockdown drills, McLaren has received feedback from both perspectives. Some people think they should be done more often than the current quarterly schedule, while others feel the drills are scaring children unnecessarily. Another complex issue still being considered is the security of buildings after school hours. “So many groups are using the buildings,” said McLaren. “These are community buildings. We don’t have an answer tonight, but it has been an item of discussion, and we hear it’s a growing concern for you as well.”

A simulation drill for staff is planned for this summer, on a volunteer basis, to help refine procedures for responding to a shooter. No students will be involved.

McLaren introduced Deputy Tom Sharon, the school resource officer, as “our eyes and ears across the district, in all the buildings.” Sharon, from the Ulster County Sheriff’s Office, said he has worked as a police officer in Shandaken, Rosendale, the BOCES Alternative School, and the Rondout School District. He has had training in active shooter drilling and is a parent of children in the Onteora district. Also present were officers from Olive, Shandaken, and Woodstock, who visit the schools at least once a day and maintain contact with Sharon. “In lockdown drills, we work together as one,” said Sharon.

Youth Crisis Assessment

School psychologist Hayden Hartmann spoke on the subject of mental health, noting that at the secondary level, “The school counselors, psychologists, nurse, and assistant principal meet weekly and are in touch on a daily basis. We have developed a Youth Crisis Assessment (YCA) in collaboration with mental health agencies. We want to catch kids if they having more than just ‘a really bad day.’”

Faculty and staff have been educated in the warning signs of serious depression and how to respond if they observe possible alcohol or drug abuse, anxiety disorders, feelings of worthlessness, declining performance in school, isolation, or statements suggesting suicidal intent. The teacher brings such a student to the health office, the nurse contacts the YCA staff on call, and an assessment is performed. If it seems clear the student is in danger, s/he is taken to the Kingston Hospital psychiatric emergency room for a mental health evaluation. The YCA team contacts parents and administrators, ensure the student will be kept up with school work while hospitalized, and help plan for reintegration upon return to school, including, said Hartmann, “What does the student want their story to be if they get asked questions?”

Administrators respond

Audience members wrote down questions on cards, and McLaren posed them to a panel of 12 administrators. One parent asked, “How is staff trying to minimize student stress and fear about their safety?” Linda Sella, principal of the Phoenicia Elementary School, which includes kindergarten through third grade, said, “We are careful not to frighten children. Law enforcement visibility creates a perception that those are good folks, that they’re there to help protect us. The more children see them, they don’t blink an eye anymore. They want to know if ‘Deputy Tom or Deputy George are going out on playground with us.’ And they are!”

Scott Richards, principal of Woodstock Elementary School, added, “We rely on teachers to keep an eye on kids and have conversations. If they don’t feel capable of responding to something, we bring in a social worker or psychologist. The kids are hearing a lot of things right now, and how they react, we never know.”

One parent stated that some students believe nothing will happen if they talk to staff about problems they’re having with other students. High school principal Lance Edelman commented, “Our students are wonderful kids, and I don’t think they have a problem coming forward to talk to an adult in the building about a problem. But we still have to keep confidentiality. Communication doesn’t seem as great as it could be, but we can’t say, ‘Thanks for the tip, we did take so-and-so to the hospital.’ We do take every report seriously.”

Cindy Bishop, director of pupil/personnel services, responded to a question about teaching students to detect and report signs of crisis in their friends. “We have a social/emotional learning curriculum taught in K-6 that goes into specific details about crisis reporting. Students know if a friend is in need, they’re going to go to an adult to get help.”

“We cover in it in the middle school and high school health curriculum,” said Edelman, “and we’ve had speakers at assemblies, including one the state police put on about bullying and harassment, which promotes reporting.”

Michael Iapoce, Commissioner of the Ulster County Department of Social Services, said his department works closely with the school districts regarding children identified as being in danger. “The county offers programming to bring to schools about positive self-image, dating, cybersafety,  relationships. It’s part of our outreach to make sure no one slips through the cracks. Kids might hear from someone who speaks at an assembly and gives out contact information.”

A questioner asked for the administrators’ reaction to the suggestion that some faculty members carry guns. “I’m not in favor of arming teachers,” said McLaren. “I can’t speak for everyone, but I don’t see that ending well.” Applause from the audience was vigorous.

In reply to a request for a description of lockdown drills, Sharon said, “If we see a threat, someone in the building should be able to call a lockdown. The school goes into a turtle shell and hides. They get to safety as soon as possible so law enforcement can get there and ensure the safety of students and staff.”

Jennifer O’Connor, the middle school principal, confirmed that students offer feedback about the drills. “Last time, there were a few substitute teachers in the building, and the kids did a great job of helping the subs. Afterwards, they ask a million questions—’Was it real?’ “Where were the mistakes?’ I tell them.”

“We did a new drill because of Deputy Tom this year, what to do if kids are outside,” said Bennett School principal Gabriel Bono. “Afterwards, the kids talked about the route they took and how it could it be safer.”

A parent remarked, “Even before the recent shootings, people liked to joke about shooting up schools. How do we handle that if it might be just a joke?”

McLaren replied, “I don’t think it’s ever a joke. I think it’s a threat.”