In wake of shootings, schools examine security


Recorder News Staff

How safe are our schools?

In the wake of Friday's tragic shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., a grieving nation is forced to ask itself just that.

Parents, teachers and school officials from throughout the area have also been reminded that no school, no community, is immune from the violence that has invaded the classroom.

But the horrendous events of Dec. 15, 2012 are also providing districts an opportunity to reassess the policies and procedures already in place to deal with such crisis and ask themselves the most important question: Are we doing enough?

At Broadalbin-Perth, Director of Operations and Safety Mike Carney said the district has had emergency response plans for each of its buildings in place for 20 years now, with each plan designed to address a specific disaster, whether natural or man-made.

"We drill twice a year," Carney said.

"If we do any of our emergency drills, it's by building," Carney said. "So if we do a drill at the Perth site, we do it for the whole building. If we do a drill at the Broadalbin site, we do it for the whole building."

Carney said the specifics of the response procedures are confidential and known only to the administrators of the building it serves, as mandated by the state education department guidelines.

Much like many of the schools in the area, access to Broadalbin-Perth buildings is limited to one door.

"All the doors are locked accept for the main entrances and then people have to go through the offices to get into the rest of the building," Carney said. "We don't have a buzz-in system like some other districts do, but everybody has to come in and sign in at the main office."

The emergency response procedures in place in the Fonda-Fultonvile Central School District are also confidential, but they are in place and they are faithfully practiced.

"Obviously, there's lockdown drills and there's numbers of drills that schools are required to do and we certainly are always on top of that," said F-F High School Principal Dave Halloran.

There, too, Halloran said, access to the buildings is limited to a single door outside the front office and visitors are required to sign in.

Though confident in the safety procedures in place to protect the district students, Halloran did say Friday's event have inspired the district to reassess its protocols.

"Obviously, in light of Friday's events that conversation was had this morning about let's get together and review it and make sure that we're doing all we can to assure that safety is our first priority and it is," Halloran said. "It's always been that way. We have sent an e-mail to staff assuring them of that."

"Do I think we could be better? I think we could always be better," Halloran said. "Overall, do I think Fonda-Fultonville is a safe school? I absolutely do. Does that mean that we do not take a look at it and have the conversations? Of course we do."

"If anything Newtown teaches us, it's that that school was a locked school. That young man shot his way in," Halloran added. "What's scary is there are some things you cannot plan for."

Of the three largest school districts in the Fulton/Montgomery County region the most rigorous safety protocols appear to be implemented in the Greater Amsterdam Central School District.

"We happen to be very fortunate because in the building project that started in 2005 and 2006, the safety and security of the building was the very first thing that was addressed," said Amsterdam Superintendent Thomas Perillo.

In addition to the single access entry in each of the buildings, visitors to Amsterdam schools must be buzzed in and a camera installed outside each building allows staff to verify the identity of the visitor before they are allowed access.

Once inside, Perillo said, a visitor must sign in and show identification, which is then scanned via a special program which pulls background information on that individual.

"We have all of the mechanisms in place that we actually know of to have," Perillo said. "Those have been very effective in the schools."

Perillo also described the various protocols in place should an emergency present itself.

"Every single building now has a building safety plan and there's literature in there on all different types of incidents and disasters," Perillo said.

Perillo said there are various levels of emergency procedures and they are generally dictated to staff via an announcement.

According to Perillo, "hold all classes" indicates a need to restrict hall traffic and is usually employed during a medical situation.

"Lockout indicates that no one will be allowed to enter the building," Perillo said. "Classes will be conducted as normal and students can pass as normal but no one from outside the building is allowed to come in."

Lockdown, Perillo said, is the most severe of the procedures.

"If we go into a lockdown, if that comes over the all call, that would indicate that the teachers are to lock and close their classroom doors and bring any students in the hallway into the nearest classroom."

Amsterdam High School Principal Dave Ziskin credited the similar lockdown procedure employed at Sandy Hook on Friday, and the person who implemented it, with having saved lives.

"It's something that the principal of Sandy Hook was able to implement effectively because a number of teachers were able to take some action that did save some lives," Ziskin said.

Ziskin also said he spent a portion of Monday reinforcing his school's emergency response policies with his staff.

"I think we are a safe school. That said, I don't know how safe you can be given what the person in Connecticut was willing to do to bring harm on people," said Ziskin. "We certainly have taken what I think are very responsible precautions into how we operate our building with a focus on student safety, but that was a pretty extreme action on the part of a very troubled person."

Prior to dismissal on Friday, Perillo said, he began responding to the news coming out of Connecticut.

"I sent correspondence out to all of the buildings letting them know what was going on and asking them to look at and reinforce all safety protocol and procedures with everyone," said Perillo. "I believe at this point that we have every procedure in place that can possibly be put in place. What we always need to look at is the heightened awareness of the situations that are around us."

"One of the things that this does bring up is whatever procedures you have in place, you always take a look at those and criticize it," he added. "Anytime you look at these things, its always what's the worst possible case scenario that we could come up with here and what would we do in those situations. I just believe we have to continually go over those."

Perillo also noted the presence of armed resource officers in both the district's middle and high schools as providing an added measure of safety.

"Unfortunately, in this situation that happened in Connecticut, the assailant did not have permission to come in the building," Perillo said. "He was not authorized to go in the building, but he still got in."

Though arguably an added measure of protection, armed resource officers are not without their pitfalls in terms of school security, Perillo said.

"I think if you have armed guards in every school, you might be telling the public that schools are not safe and schools are a safe place."

Perillo estimated that each officer costs approximately $20,000 per year to staff.

The financial concerns are always an issue, Halloran said it is not what causes him to pause when it comes to the idea of armed guards in his school. It's the image it presents.

"We had one," Halloran said, explaining that a state trooper was once posted at the school, but that at some point the state police deemed it no longer financially feasible.

"I'm not really sure what the answer is," said Halloran. "You try to avoid having a knee-jerk reaction to anything and really ponder as a society what are we about."

"It's a sad commentary on our society when this is the conversation," he added. "At the same time, it is critical the schools are safe and that these types of events that happened on Friday diminish dramatically in their frequency."

Though actually supportive of the idea of posting armed resource officers in his hallways, Broadalbin-Perth Superintendent Stephen Tomlinson said he does not believe doing so will adequately address the issue.

"It's not an answer in regards to stopping this from happening." Tomlinson said. "I can never guarantee a parent that we can stop this. This incident that occurred in Sandy Hook, this person was going to get in regardless of what safety measures they had."

"If our finances were unlimited, I'm a strong supporter of having a school resource officer at each campus, but that's a lot of money and the funding just isn't there for it," he added. "There used to be grants. They really are non-existent now and it's difficult without those grants."

Ensuring the safety of area school children in light of the recent tragedy is also on the mind of local law enforcement officials.

Montgomery County Sheriff Michael Amato said he actually met with his officers Monday morning to discuss refreshing themselves when it comes to the departments policies with respect to an "active shooter."

Amato said he has procedures in place to deal with emergencies in each of the school district's covered by his office and the procedures are a collaborative effort between the sheriff's office and the individual schools.

"We work with schools," Amato said. "We review the plans with them. In fact, we're touching base with the schools that we cover since this incident happened to make sure that nothing's changed that we might have missed, like a phone number or just something that we might have missed that we should get corrected."

"We have done the training here," he added. "Of course, it probably might be a good time to retrain again just to keep them sharp."

Though he would not go into detail, Amato said the response would include a number of area law enforcement agencies and it would be continually adjusted based on the information received through 911 calls.

"Really about the only thing that's changed in these scenarios is that before, when you used to respond to these calls, you used to wait outside until the SWAT team showed up," Amato said. "Now, active shooter training is where we respond. You get the call you just go in. You don't wait anymore."

In Fulton County, Sheriff Thomas Lorey said he was confident in his department's ability to address any such emergency at an area school.

"It's something that law enforcement practices a couple of times a year," Lorey said. "When we go to the shooting range, we always do a drill that would involve going into a school and apprehending a shooter if that were to happen here."

"We've done walk throughs and made suggestions in most of school districts in Fulton County," Lorey added. "I'm pretty happy with the security that's in place in most of the schools in the county and I don't really think that there's much that can be done, short of putting an armed officer in every school."

Doing so, he added, will likely not be financially feasible for many years to come.

School officials are certainly not alone in their concerns for the safety of the children they educate.

The parents who entrust those officials with the lives of their children on a daily basis are also being forced to reevaluate their sense of security in the aftermath of Sandy Hook.

Most, however, expressed confident in the school's ability to protect their children.

"I did not worry about sending my son to school today," said Broadalbin-Perth mother Laurie Tambasco. "I feel that our school does a very good job with their safety measures."

"We live in a society where we don't have a lot of control," Tambasco added. "I know our school has taken every precaution that it possibly can to make sure our children are safe. They care about our children."

Tambasco, however, the mother of a high school student, said she was not entirely sure she could be as confident if her son were just beginning his school years.

"If you have a child in the high school and you've spent time in that school, it's less of a concern," said Tambasco "I can't tell you that if I were a young parent and had a child in Pre-K or Kindergarten that I may not feel a little bit differently because you're new in that situation and you don't have the experience and you've just kind of let them go off."

Amsterdam mother Sue Phemister, whose children were formally enrolled in the district, also said she was comfortable with the security provided in the schools

"I think that level of security is good for what we need," said Phemister. "Who expects a gunman to blast his way in?"

For Phemister, armed resource officers are also not the answer.

"I think that's fighting fire with fire. That's a whole different mentality," said Phemister. "If they didn't have guns to begin with they wouldn't be shooting, right?"

"I would feel deep, deep sadness if Amsterdam School District, or any school district, reacted to this by putting in armed officers instead of putting a mental health officer in our high schools to catch this 20 year old kid," she added.

So where do our schools go from here?

For Tomlinson, the answer is unclear, but he hopes to get a little guidance from the parents whose children are entrusted to his care.

On Wednesday, January 9, Tomlinson will host a public forum to discuss safety protocols in the Broadalbin-Perth School District.

"I think it's time," Tomlinson said. "It's tough to get parents to come in and be a part of what we do here in school, but this has struck an emotional chord on a lot of us, especially all of us that have children."

"We can give a sense of what it is that we do then politely ask for input," he added. "Our board of (education) will take all of this info and we will look at a reasonable solution to the suggestions and to the problems that we have."

Tomlinson said the idea to hold the forum was brought on by several phone calls he received from parents over the weekend reacting to the news out of Connecticut.

"Parents are concerned because they are loving parents," said Tomlinson. "They have not expressed to us that they feel our schools are unsafe, but they have expressed a desire for us to take a closer look at this."

Tomlinson said he began Monday by addressing the concerns he fielded from parents over the weekend, formulating a letter outlining the safety issues and making plans for the forum.

"The message that I wanted to get out to the community is really that we are going to re-energize our focus on our security here in our schools," said Tomlinson. "We do feel that we do have very good security measures, but in difficult times like what happened at Sandy Hook, it forces us to take a closer look and to see if there are changes that can be made."

"I think the message is a very delicate message," he added. "I want parents to know we are going to try our darnedest, that it is our number one priority here in B-P that we are going to keep our children and our staff and visitors to our building safe. However, realistically, there's only so much we can do and we want to make sure that we're making good decisions."

Himself, the father of small child, Tomlinson said his response to the Sandy Hook tragedy is most assuredly as much emotional as it is practical.

"It's hard. I have a first -grade daughter, the same exact age as the children that lost their lives. It's very emotional," Tomlinson said. "I don't know that I held my daughter any tighter this weekend than I have at any previous moment."

"It's been a challenge. It really has," he added. "It's been a lot of tears. It's been a lot of heartache. It's forced me to question a lot of what we do here in our schools."

"It certainly does affect the approach I'm taking, however, I do believe that with or without a young child, I would be just as angry and just as diligent in my efforts to fix this problem," Tomlinson continued. "I don't believe I'm working any harder because I have a six-year-old daughter. I know one thing, because I have six year old daughter, it brings it much closer to home than it would any other way."

"You can't help but have that be that little guy on your shoulder saying you've got to do this for not only your child, but for everyone in our community."