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School Board Approves Increased Funds For Security

schoolsecurityAs Scarsdale struggled to recover from a state of emergency this past Monday, the Board of Education took a look at safety and security in the school district. The tragic events in Parkland, FL certainly have brought school safety to the forefront of national discussion, but Scarsdale has focused on it for years.

In fact, Scarsdale Board of Education President Bill Natbony opened this week's board meeting by saying, "The administration and board take the matter of safety very seriously, and processes and procedures have long been in place, and continue to be reviewed and revised as needed." But, what began as a timely overview of the district's safety efforts culminated in the board approving a request to spend an additional $250,000 to enhance security throughout the district and hire a new director of security to coordinate the effort.

The discussion about school safety began with board members and administrators reviewing the Westchester Putnam School Boards Association's "Safety Resolution Template," a form letter to federal and state officials that addresses government action on mental health treatment, gun control and promotion of safety measures at schools. Board Member Nina Cannon said, "It's important that the board take a stand. We're at a very pivotal moment; there is momentum for change." She continued, "To the extent we can increase... resources for mental illness and gun control, we should take a stand and I think we have backing from the community as well. " The board decided to consider the template and discuss the topic at the next meeting.

After reviewing a number of business issues, the board and administration again took up district security and safety efforts. Scarsdale Schools Superintendent Thomas Hagerman began the presentation by stating, "I want to assure the community that our thinking about safety, security and emergency preparedness did not start two or three weeks ago with a shooting in Parkland. It has been something that we've been thinking about, and attending to, and making pretty drastic changes for many years." He continued, "We are in a day and age now where violence and threats of harm... can affect you no matter where you live."

Assistant Superintendent for Business and Facilities Stuart Mattey then presented an overview of the district's work with an outside school security consultant, Altaris Consulting Group. Specifically, Altaris has assessed Scarsdale's emergency plans, response times, practices, policies and procedures, and provided an updated emergency management plan.

Looking to next steps to enhance security, the school administration proposed that Altaris continue to work with building and district-level teams on opportunities for improved security measures, and that the district would continue communication/coordination with local law enforcement, and make recommendations for funding to support a variety of building and technology safety projects on a school-by-school basis. Those recommendations include funding to support building and technology improvements (at a cost of $125,000) and hiring a director of security who would devote 100 percent attention to security matters (at a cost of $125,000).

SecurityPlanNatbony followed up by saying, "I'm pleased to see there are some funds for security in the budget... My question is that half (of the proposed amount) is designated for a director of security... I wonder if that is something that Altaris is suggesting. Is that a best practice that we see across schools? Do we spend money on a person who is doing consulting work that Altaris does, as opposed to an expenditure of funds for something more concrete?"

Mattey responded, "It is very challenging to make sure that 100 percent of our time is focused on something as important as security. If someone has a question about security and I'm not available... we need to have someone here with expertise ... someone on staff who understands buildings, (faculty) and protocols on a deeper level. "

Natbony continued, "I get that, but am still having trouble separating Altaris' role and a director of security's role, when we may be able to spend that money in a number of different ways (to enhance security)."

Board Member Lee Maude continued, "This is a very emotional topic... and everyone's very concerned, but we've been through the budget process, we have a budget book, and this is not in it... I'm going to ask if this is so important, is it more important than something else in this budget that you'd like to take out?" She also asked whether a school resource officer (SRO) would be a viable alternative to a director of security, and what were best practices across school districts.

John LaPlaca a representative from Altaris, then explained that SROs, assigned by local police departments, do not get involved in detailed security work for school districts. Typically present in high schools and/or middle schools, they are ambassadors of the police department and help students to feel comfortable with a uniformed police presence.

La Placa said, "There are a lot of moving parts when it comes to emergency planning and training that go on in a district... Even though we're accessible 24 hours a day... there's still a lot of legwork that needs to be done building to building. There are many things that have to be done, on a daily basis, a monthly basis, an annual basis that we need to coordinate with a point person."

Cannon and Natbony countered by asking about the roles of SROs in other Westchester districts and if it was better to have a dedicated SRO in light of the initiatives the district already has in place.

LaPlaca responded, "(Expanding) the SRO program would be very beneficial, it will certainly help with prevention efforts and improve relationships (among) law enforcement and students, faculty and parents... But they are completely different from directors of school security." He continued, "Many districts are considering security officers because safety and security is as important as many of the other things you do right now. (Considering) the risks that schools are faced with... there should be someone dedicated to manage the function in collaboration with consultants like us."

Hagerman added that the Scarsdale Police Department has provided the district with access to an SRO, but that the officer isn't fully assigned. "We're talking about... an individual who really knows teachers and buildings quite well, and does the high level work on processes and procedures, keeping us safe all the time."

He continued, "I hear you saying that we're at the end of our budget process, but we are waiting for community input on things and we've been getting a lot of community input around the issue of safety. We wanted to come to the board with some ideas for real changes that we would (have) a high impact for the district."

Board Member Pam Feuhrer then stated: "I think that this is a position that has been a long time coming and I support this. We're always looking for ways to improve. Now, we have detailed ways, with a consultant's overview, (and) keeping best practices at the forefront of our discussions, but we need someone on the ground, on a daily basis, to implement these changes."

After continued discussion about the pros and cons of an SRO versus a security director, Natbony said, "If you do have someone who's a designated security person, in charge of implementing... at least you have a way to enforce policies. I'm beginning to see the advantage of that."

LaPlaca and Hagerman then asserted that a director of security would evaluate and supervise safety drills and processes, and report back to the district's safety team on performance and problems. The director would be able to focus on particular, major scenarios, such as bomb threats, while ensuring compliance with basic rules and protocols, such as the importance of wearing nametags.

The public was then invited to comment. Tanya Singer (Montrose Road) said, "I know we're in communication already, but it's not enough. (We should be) beefing up the safety committee with broader input from the community before the ink dries on the consultant hire. There are things we know about vulnerabilities and we can share our point of view in a more structured way." She also asked about specific provisions for emotional health services in the budget stating, "There's a huge issue around stress and anger management; there has to be a lot of intelligence out there." Singer concluded her remarks by saying, "I think the community will support efforts to ramp security efforts up. Do we have to wait so long for security vestibules? Can we expedite that? Parents are here to help; we all want the same thing. Leverage us... the focus should be on a comprehensive and accelerated plan."

Richard Pinto (Overhill Road) said, "What I've heard tonight is encouraging and well thought out. I have one observation... when you don't have communication, that's where a lot of issues happen... From a holistic view, a security director should outline the communication process. When Trustee Veron posted to Scarsdale Moms about power outages, it calmed people down (because of her role in the village). Social media is where we are, and parents are on Facebook, so whether it's working with page admins or assigning someone to post, communication is something that needs to be considered as part of the multilevel process. If you do emergency planning without communications, there will be problems."

La Placa responded, "I agree with (Mr. Pinto's) statement. Many people get their information from social media. One of the things we teach is to get information out there and often. The community wants to know the district is on top of things."

* * *

The Board then proceeded with its scheduled 2018-19 budget study session #4, which featured a full review of the draft budget. The budget was relatively unchanged since the previous study session, save the new request for a $250,000 security allocation. With all board members recognizing the importance of safety and improving security within the district where possible, it unanimously approved allocating the funds in the proposed budget. The district is now asked to determine if the cost will be simply a budget add-on, of if another line item will be reduced by $250,000. Several board members suggested reducing reserves to cover the cost, thereby having no impact on tax levy or other planned expenditures.

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