New Paltz School District safety forum addresses a myriad of issues

Concerned parent Desiree Lawlor addresses the committee. (Photo by Lauren Thomas)

The New Paltz Central School District hosted a school safety forum on February 26. The purpose was for district representatives to talk about the safety measures already in place or planned for each of the school buildings, with the majority of the hour-and-a-half session used for Q&A. The meeting held at the high school was well-attended by parents, Board of Education members, interested individuals from the community and a handful of students, two of whom made statements during the proceedings that appeared to resonate with other attendees.

The 14-person panel presiding included members of the school district’s safety committee, which includes New Paltz Police Chief Joseph Snyder and Lieutenant Robert Lucchesi. Superintendent of Schools Maria Rice and Deputy Schools Superintendent Michelle Martoni were on the panel, as were New Paltz High School Principal Barbara Clinton, middle school principal Ann Sheldon and co-chair of the committee, food services director Michael Robinson. His co-chair, director of transportation Maureen Ryan, was unable to attend the meeting.

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The primary message that came across throughout the evening from those who asked questions or made statements was the desire to see more proactive action from the district in addressing issues of safety that include outside threats coming into the schools and internal issues such as reported incidents of racism, bullying and sexual harassment on school property. Transparency between the district and parents was also asked for.

Safety protocol already utilized include locked buildings during the school day, required identification of visitors before they are “buzzed in” and greater police presence in schools with daily random visits and walk-throughs by uniformed New Paltz Police Department officers, deputies from the Ulster County Sheriff’s Department and New York State Troopers. The police presence is meant to foster relationships between students and law enforcement as well as to serve as a deterrent to possible intruders or troublemakers.

In addition, four lockdown simulations have been held at the schools with more planned for the future. Lockdown events are not only an opportunity to practice safety procedures but to discover weaknesses in the process that can be addressed and corrected, said Chief Snyder.

Deputy Superintendent Martoni noted that each school has a crisis team that can assess what needs to be done in the case of an emergency, working from countywide protocol developed several years ago.

On the horizon, security cameras are currently on order for the exterior of middle and high school buildings and exterior strobe lights are to be mounted at all of the schools. The strobe lights will serve as an emergency warning to students who are outside the buildings on the playing fields or other areas to get to a safe place. Training of district staff in safety protocol is underway — including the training of substitute teachers — and a security assessment of New Paltz schools will occur once a professional security audit team is hired.

Police Chief Snyder said there is a lot of discussion going on about school safety at monthly meetings of the Ulster County Police Chiefs Association, meetings that are attended by area school superintendents. The meetings are an opportunity for schools to share information, he noted, and to discuss incidents and how they were handled. He and Lieutenant Lucchesi have also met with New Paltz teachers in faculty meetings to discuss things they should look for.

And some teachers are still confused about safety protocol, he said. There are times to run from an intruder and times to hide, he added, with the additional minutes staying out of sight possibly being enough to buy the time needed for law enforcement to arrive. Response time is critical; according to Chief Snyder, response time for most incidents is usually less than three minutes. “We train to hide first, but have a plan B and plan C; don’t just give up.” Snyder recommended that teachers confronted with an intruder have a water bottle or stapler in their hand to throw at an assailant, distracting him and possibly buying time for another child to get away.

The Chief also noted that self-defense training can be helpful for school staff, something that other districts in the county have utilized for their employees. “We’re thinking outside of the box; that’s where the discussion is.”

Internal pressures

A number of the concerns voiced at the forum were previously brought up at the School Board meeting on February 13. The parent whose letter regarding bus safety was read into the record at that time was at the safety forum to ask why there are not monitors on every bus and security cameras installed. Superintendent Rice replied that the parent’s questions were better suited for the director of transportation, Maureen Ryan, who did not attend the safety forum. Rice did say, however, that bus safety can be a difficult issue to control because incidents are considered a “major issue but sporadic” in their occurrence. Rice said that “Peaceful Bus” training will be offered that gives drivers more tools to handle problems, and promised that the district would look into better bus safety. No timeframe for that was offered.

The vaping epidemic at New Paltz High School was addressed, with one of the student speakers telling the group that she “hates having to use the bathroom” at school because of the ever-present vaping going on inside. In addition, the adult hall monitors stationed outside the bathrooms — and in some cases entering them, following a student inside — makes for an uncomfortable experience using the restroom, she said. 

Principal Clinton replied that the monitors are supposed to make periodic checks inside the bathrooms, but said she did put a stop to an incident regarding two adult monitors who decided to outfit themselves in matching red t-shirts reading, “JUUL Police” (JUUL is a popular brand of vaping); and she made them change their clothing to something appropriate. The schools in New Paltz have tried to tackle the vaping epidemic through physical education classes, informing students of the hazards to their health in taking up the dangerous practice, but it apparently remains as rampant as it does in other schools nearby.

Issues of racism, sexual harassment and bullying at New Paltz schools brought up at the February 13 Board of Education meeting were also taken up in the discussion at the safety forum. Parents were encouraged by those who spoke to report any incident witnessed or experienced by their child, even if the incident is not serious enough to rise to the level required by DASA (the Dignity for All Students Act; state legislation established to provide a school environment free of discrimination and harassment). One speaker noted that reporting incidents, no matter how minor, establishes trends in behavior that can be tracked and corrected.

Superintendent Rice said the district is looking into establishing an anonymous online system in which students could report incidents without fear of retribution. She said that other schools already use such a system, and that a superintendent from another district said their efforts had resulted in preventing a suicide.

And an administrator from the Newburgh City School District who specializes in DASA-related issues was in attendance at the forum, joining the conversation to offer some clarifications and information about DASA protocol.

The most controversial issue of the night seemed to be whether or not New Paltz should hire school resource officers (SROs), sworn law enforcement personnel deployed by a police department to work in collaboration with a school district. An SRO is generally armed, carrying the same equipment he or she would carry on any law enforcement assignment — unless a district’s policies don’t permit firearms on school property — but will not arrest students. Their role usually includes acting as educator (on issues such as drunk or distracted driving) and mentor/counselor to students, as well. 

The statement made by one parent in favor of SROs in New Paltz schools was greeted by enthusiastic applause from some attendees and loud booing by others. When asked, Superintendent Rice and Police Chief Snyder both said they were for the practice of having SROs in the schools “under certain conditions.” The parent who advocated for SROs noted that Rice had put together a budget at one point allowing for the hiring of a school resource officer but the Board of Education at the time removed the item.

Board of Education trustee Diana Armstead voiced her opposition to having SROs in the schools, citing her 30 years of law enforcement background and calling the practice “too volatile,” suggesting people do their research about the pros and cons of SROs before deciding one way or the other. 

A student against having SROs at school noted that she thought it would make for an uncomfortable environment at school. While she is a good student, she said, she felt that being watched would make her feel “targeted, and I don’t think people just trying to learn should feel targeted.”

But Board of Education trustee Teresa Thompson said she was on the fence about the issue, believing that a modified, unarmed SRO could be helpful as “extra eyes” at the school to see problems happening. “Because what we have now is not working. We need help for a multitude of reasons.” 

Superintendent Maria Rice did not respond to a request for comment.

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