The New Paltz Central School District held a public hearing on its Districtwide School Safety Plan last week, with Interim Superintendent Bernard Josefsberg reading a letter he described as “both thoughtful and important.”
While the subject of school safety covers a lot of territory — everything from fire drills to school bus rules — one of the most pressing issues of the time appears to be the nationwide prevalence of gun violence, and how best to prevent it. For some, the answer is as simple as hiring armed guards, or local police to serve as School Resource Officers (SRO); but for others, the presence of police officers or guns itself creates feelings of unease.
During the public hearing held during a meeting of the Board of Education on Wednesday, August 17, Josefsberg read a letter from Kelly Scotto, a biracial mother of two biracial children in the district.
“I’m writing to respectfully discuss safety of our school district and the implementation of trained, armed Sheriff’s deputies, active or retired within our school district,” Scotto wrote. “I care deeply about the needs of our community’s most vulnerable and their ability to have a fair chance for both success and happiness while providing a safe and comforting place for education to take place.”
Scotto went on to note that after attending high school during both the Columbine High School Massacre and the terror attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, she’d hoped her own children would be able to go to school in a less fraught age.
“As time has passed, the number of school shootings and outright craziness in this world have only increased,” she said, adding that she felt it was important that whatever solution the district comes up with to address school safety, it should come from discussions with the entire school community.
“We do not want SROs as the disciplinary arm of our school district,” Scotto wrote. “We want equity for all. When it comes to safety, the equity for all does not mean that we make the BIPOC (Black and indigenous people of color) feel safe by not having guns or police in our schools and disregard what makes white people feel safe. It also does not mean that we disregard what makes BIPOC feel safe just to appease white people. In addition, none of this is to imply that guns or police do or don’t make anyone feel safe. That is a personal opinion in which everyone has their own beliefs, and we need to do what is best for the community as a whole, regardless of race, political affiliation, ethnicity, religion or sexual orientation.”
Scotto wrote that the issue of school safety is larger than the New Paltz Central School District.
“We need to do what is best for the community as a whole,” she wrote. “We all have a common goal to keep our children safe. The question is, how do we get there? How do we agree? And how long are we going to wait? We need meaningful action to keep our schools safe. Action that addresses what we know about gun violence in our nation schools, mental health and prevention.”
Raffaela Zaccaria was the only in-person speaker at the public hearing, and she expressed support for an armed security presence at New Paltz schools.
“My goal, and all of our goals, is just to have a safe haven for our kids,” she said. “Did we survey all the schools, or did we just survey the schools that don’t have armed security. Because it really does work.”
Zaccaria said she works in a place with armed security and said she was “uneasy” about her daughter going to school in a facility without similar protection.
“Not because the staff isn’t wonderful, not because of internal, but external,” she said. “It’s a horrible day when we have to have this conversation. I’m really hoping that we can come to some sort of median agreement.”
During the meeting, Josefsberg read from a letter he sent to the school community the following day, saying that the safety plan — much of which is circulated internally and not in the public eye to prevent someone with nefarious intentions from knowing how to circumvent them — has come together with the assistance of Town of New Paltz Police Chief Robert Lucchesi.
“We are moving forward with hardening plans to counter conceivable external threats,” Josefsberg said. “These include working closely with the New Paltz Police Department — both behind the scenes and as a visible community presence. They do not include stationing armed officers in school buildings. School safety also means softening the experience of school so that everyone feels safer. We want our schools to be places of vigilant caring.”
The public hearing was the culmination of a month-long period of comment where the 30-page Districtwide School Safety Plan was available for review on the district website.
While the plan does not call for police officers to serve as armed SROs during the school day, the School Board did approve an intermunicipal agreement with the Town of New Paltz for police security and safety services at specific district events during the 2022-23 school year, with one or two officers being paid their regular rate with benefits, plus an additional 9.4 percent, for a minimum of three hours per event.