Local schools step up security ahead of new school year – The Daily Gazette

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With the start of the school year just days away, keeping students safe in the classroom has been a top priority for district leaders in recent months, following a series of school-related tragedies and a year of increased behavioral problems resulting from the pandemic.

Districts across the region have worked to strengthen safety by hiring additional safety personnel and expanding mental health services and restorative practices, which are designed to address the root cause of issues affecting students while offering them the opportunity to learn from their mistakes and work towards restitution.

In some cases, police will be placed in schools for the first time, while other districts have worked to refine safety procedures, including lockdowns and fire drills, in a bid to better prepare students. and emergency personnel.

The efforts are part of annual plans that schools are required to assemble under state law, but come amid growing concerns about student safety, after many districts saw an increase in incidents. violent and behavioral last year.

Schenectady Superintendent Anibal Soler Jr. acknowledged an increase in incidents in the district last year, which he attributed to students re-adapting to in-person learning after more than a year of virtual classes due to the pandemic. He noted that districts across the region have seen similar increases, but thinks the issues will level off as students continue to adjust.

“I think we’ve all been affected by the isolation that’s happened and bringing everyone back,” Soler said. “I think this year all of the districts — and I know we are — are very excited about having kind of less of these COVID protocols in place, and all these other things that have made our work sometimes a little different and difficult.

The start of the school year comes just months after a school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, left 19 people dead. The incident, which came just 10 days after a racist mass shooter killed 10 people at a Buffalo grocery store, has reignited the debate about school safety and best practices for keeping students safe. students while they are in class.

Last week, the New York State United Teachers Union issued a series of recommendations on the subject, including calls for elected officials at the state and federal levels to strengthen gun safety laws and increase the funding so that schools can hire designated security personnel and implement programs shown to reduce violent incidents.

Officials who worked on the report urged lawmakers not to make knee-jerk reactions when addressing school safety in the wake of a tragedy like Uvalde, but rather take a holistic approach that will benefit everyone. students and address the root cause of the problem.

The report also recommends that lawmakers approve a universal set of safety standards for all schools and for districts to prioritize preventative measures rather than focusing solely on student discipline.

“Whenever there’s a tragic event like Uvalde, Parkland, or Sand Hook, we call it a call to action,” said NYSUT President Andy Pallotta. “But safe schools for all cannot be an idea that comes in waves.”

In Schenectady, the district has already been working to implement many recommendations for years, including increasing social and emotional learning and implementing restorative practices.

The district has allocated thousands of dollars to further expand services under its budget approved in May and has filled dozens of positions, with plans to fill several more as the school year progresses.

Among the new hires are 40 new counselors and 21 school psychologists, who will place a counselor in every elementary school for the first time, Soler said. The district is also in the process of trying to hire culture officers, who will help with the district’s restoration practices.

The district will continue to discipline students, but only those who are older, and punishments will vary depending on the severity of the incident and the age of the student.

Soler said the district was making progress with its restorative practices, but acknowledged the pandemic of course threw things off. Still, he expects the setback to be only temporary and noted that he is committed to continuing the practices.

“Knowing that these practices are in place, they lend to the culture, they lend to the resources that people use, and they give us another tool in our toolbox,” he said.

But Soler said the district has also been “back to basics” when it comes to addressing security issues, ensuring all buildings have working ID entry systems, improving video cameras and limiting entry into buildings to a single point in most cases, according to Soler.

The district has also hired additional school safety monitors for each school who will be tasked with patrolling hallways and responding to fights in the event of a breakout.

Additionally, three community engagement officers will be placed at the high school, an increase from two last year after the district school board voted to expand the program amid community backlash in a 4 vote -3 earlier this year.

Soler, in an interview last week, stressed that the officers are only part of the district’s safety plans and will not be tasked with enforcing the code of conduct or punishing students. Instead, he said, officers will focus on building relationships and providing an additional layer of security.

“They’re like sprinkles on your ice cream,” Soler said. “They are an extra thing that is important to have.”

Elsewhere, the Broadalbin-Perth Central School District in Fulton County will add two full-time school resource officers to work in its schools through an agreement between the Fulton County Board of Supervisors and the County Sheriff’s Office. Fulton.

The district will pay $215,000 a year for the officers, which will cover salary, training and equipment, including a patrol car, according to Superintendent Stephen Tomlinson.

School Resource Officers will be the first responders to an emergency, such as a school shooting, actively engaging a shooter if necessary. Having the officers on school grounds is meant to allow for a quick response to any incident, Fulton County Sheriff Richard Giardino said, noting that most active shooter situations only last a few minutes. , and in a rural county like Fulton, emergency responders can take up to 10 minutes. to get to a scene.

But the addition of officers is just one step the school district has taken to bolster security this year.

Former junior high principal Wayne Bell as the district’s school safety coordinator. In his new role, Bell is responsible for everything from assessing the safety of school district buildings, to developing relationships between school personnel and law enforcement, to coordinating crisis training for the district staff.

Elsewhere in the county, the St. Johnsville Village Police Department provides school resource officers to the Oppenheim-Ephratah-St. The Johnsville Central School District and the Gloversville Police Department provide a school resource officer in the expanded Gloversville School District.

Additionally, members of the Gloversville PD conducted active fire drills inside school buildings this summer to prepare for a potential threat.

At Shenendehowa Central School District, a comprehensive, multi-pronged approach is taken to keeping schools safe, according to Rebecca Carman, director of policy and community development for the district.

“Whenever there’s an event or something happening, it helps inform our processes and see how we can do things better,” Carman said. “We are constantly looking at how we can do things better and how we can improve. Each year, we always ensure that we have a comprehensive approach to school safety. »

Carman said schools in the district are practicing fire drills, lockdown drills, lockdown drills, shelter-in-place drills, active fire and mass evacuation drills, and are working with various partners. , including Fire, EMS, Sheriff’s Department, and State Police. department.

“We also have videos that involve students and our community partners to use as a training tool,” Carman said. “So we can use that for students and teach them how to react in the best possible way, given the situation.”

The District is working with law enforcement and Homeland Security to ensure it uses the most current and up-to-date approaches and information to help mitigate security risks, Carman said.

“Every situation is different,” Carman said. “It’s about how to give people the skills, knowledge and strategies to react, depending on the situation.

The district announced earlier this month that throughout the summer, and in the future, New York State Police and the Saratoga County Sheriff will be visiting schools and buildings. Routine visits are designed to help familiarize them with buildings, staff, and protocols so they are better equipped to deal with an emergency should it arise.

“I always look at the pledge, would I want my child to go to this school? Would I want my children to be in this system? Carman said. “And the answer is absolutely yes. I know for sure that we are doing many different things to help, to continue to mitigate the risk of school violence.

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