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Armed Guards in the Schools? How Much Security is Enough?

policeinschoolsShould each school building have an armed officer on site? That’s what one Quaker Ridge parent recommended in a 12 minute speech at the Scarsdale School Board meeting on Monday night October 1. Roger Neustadt gave an impassioned presentation about his fears of school violence and the need for full time security guards or police to be on site at each school. He questioned the loyalty and credentials of the new Director of School Security and asked why the district was not taking immediate measures to place police in the schools. Read his full remarks below.

Also at the meeting Assistant Superintendent Stuart Mattey gave an update on the work of the safety committee and their plans to evaluate and implement safety measures. Evaluations of each building are underway to identify security improvement opportunities. He said that the committee is working on a long list of suggestions and considering their potential impact on students, teachers and parents and the cultural experience at the schools.

He explained that items that would not have a big impact on culture will be fast tracked for completion and others will be weighed and assessed by all stakeholders. Recommendations will be made to the Board of Education.

Director of Security Mike Spedaliere gave an update on safety.

To date, 12 fire drills have been completed, nine of these attended by members of the fire department who made recommendations on rally points and evacuation routes. The only school they have not been to as yet is the high school. Staff will attend the next drill.

They completed two lock down drills and police were present at both. Afterwards district personnel met with the police to review policies. Three more are scheduled. They completed two evacuation drills. They have begun reassessing the buildings. This should be completed by late November. He also attended faculty meetings to review these activities.

In a board discussion of safety, several board members commented on Neustadt’s comments.

Bill Natbony said, “I heard our community member. Certainly there is a panoply of different opportunities. Certainly armed security officers need further discussion. I understand the need to assess community culture. But to me personally, on something like ID badges, limiting access, having doors closed…. they don’t need major thought. I hope we can as a board and an administration get these done in a more rapid fashion.”

Chris Morin said, “I think we have to keep culture in mind and what our educational mission is and recognize that copious research indicates that high quality teaching and counseling and threat assessment are what mitigates risks. And those completely reinforce the kind of culture that we want and help us meet our educational mission and help us deal with much more significant problems that face children and teens like the risk of suicides and overdose, which are dozens of times more significant. The CDC reports that children and teens have never been safer anywhere in the world than they are today. The rates of risks for firearms continue to decline. Even the school based mass shootings that appear to be an epidemic are at a lower rate than they were in the 1990’s.

I think some things are simple, access sure. It creates a sense of order. I think we have to carefully consider what kinds of problems we are trying to solve and make sure we are not creating unintended consequences that make the other risks to children worse.”

Superintendent Hagerman commented, “This is why we have tasked these committees to address these issues. If we asked everyone in this room for their top ten things, they will not be the same. What is really important? What is high impact?”

Turning to Chris Morin, Nina Cannon said, “I haven’t seen the statistics you reported
But there does seem to be an increase in shootings in high school – to the point where we have hired a security expert and we are going through this process. I do think that having faculty and employees wearing name tags, and having a desk by the front door should not take 8-12 months to figure out. These will improve safety and allay the concerns that many in the community have expressed.”

Here are Roger Neustadt’s complete remarks:

I have three children in the schools.

I am extremely concerned about the level of security provided to our children in the schools. Along with other parents I am coordinating an effort to more directly influence security policy.

We received overwhelming support for our efforts in response to an informal survey we circulated over the summer.

Clearly the Board of Education and the administration share this concern as a Director of Security started this fall and security vestibules are slated for installation in our buildings.

Thank you for your efforts.

If the threat of harm was not real there would be no need for these and other measures.

School shootings are real. They occur in communities that look far more like Scarsdale than the Bronx. As we all know, some of the more horrific were in Columbine, Newtown and Parkland, They are suburban communities much like our village.

I am concerned that we are not doing enough to protect our most vulnerable, our most precious, our children. We are not doing enough and were not doing it quickly enough.

Altaris identified a serious issue with respect to access to our school buildings. The security vestibules will be installed in two years despite the best efforts of the board.

A question we received again and again is what happens for the next two years?

I have seen no proposals to mitigate this identified known risk in the interim. Are we to cross our fingers and hope nothing bad happens for the next two years when they will be better protected.

Certainly there are concrete steps we can take now, today to better control access to our schools.

Quaker Ridge has so many entrances and free access to the interior of the building at pick up as to be an open facility at many times of the day. This is no fault of the staff or administration but merely the design of the building. Why is nothing being done to correct this situation immediately.

Several of us met with Felix Gill last spring to discuss the access issues at Quaker Ridge which are well known.

We now come to the fall and I walk right into the pick up room to pick up my daughter. The door is open to the rest of the school. It is not uncommon at best to enter a place at work, anywhere in this country, that des not have strict entry control, an armed security presence, either seen or unseen, the ability to lock down elevators and other controls even after gaining admittance to the building, among other security precautions.

Many of us encounter this on a daily basis. Our employers and commercial landlords generally do a thorough job of protecting us while we are at work. I venture to say that most, if not all of us have burglar alarms to better secure our homes while we sleep.

The frequency of mass shootings at work places pales in comparison to those that occur in schools. Yet we do so much less to protect our children. There is no way to perfectly secure a school. Yet why are we so cautious in trying to mitigate the risk.

Our new Director of Security who I recently met has much to worry about and many perspectives to consider. Has Mike been certified as a school resource officer by the National Association of School Resource Officers? This would entail a 40-hour course which covers topics such as ethics and the school resource officer.

(Reading from the curriculum he said) The school resource officer is a teacher and guest speaker and effective presentations, understanding special needs students, the SRO is an informal counselor and mentor. Social media and cyber safety, understanding the teen brain, violence and victimization, challenges to development, sex trafficking of youth, school law, developing and supporting successful relationships with diverse students, effects of youth trends and drugs on the school culture and environment.

Down at number 14, threat response, preventing violence in school settings. Even the National Association of School Resource Officers recognizes that a proper approach to school safety does not mean creating a jail-like environment. Number 14 on their list is responding to violence.

I would hope that the person in charge of overseeing our school security has at least completed this nationally recognized curriculum. Has this course attendance yet been mandated or confirmed? It’s 40 hours. Following that is a 20-hour advanced course. It’s three days.

Far more concerning to me is some information I recently became aware of. And although public, it may not be widely understood. Is the public aware that our Director of School Security is a full time employee of Altaris, not the school district? While that is public information and it has not been withheld I don’t believe that the majority of the public is aware of this. Most people I speak with are shocked that this is not a school district employee. Was there a public posting for this position or did Altaris simply choose one of their employees.

I can accurately represent to the board that a former Scarsdale Police sergeant submitted an application of the job. He spent 20 years serving this community, knows the police officers, knows the community and knows the schools.

For some reason, his candidacy did not even garner an interview with Altaris. This is a fact. Does this clear conflict of interest for Altaris not trouble you? As the security consultant, for he is employed by a for profit company, he is first and foremost an employee of Altaris. This limits the opportunity for disparate views to be heard and for new ideas outside the Altaris fold. Altaris would be taking significant risk if they adopted security measures in one district but did not adopt them in another. It’s either the right thing to do or it’s not.

Unfortunately there is no one size fits all here. I want our Director of Security to have no loyalty beyond our schools and our children. No employment beyond our school district. There is no one in our schools everyday that arrives, stays and leaves thinking only about safety. Every school building should have someone present who focuses entirely on safety and security. That doesn’t just mean responding to a school shooting. It means fires, it means medical emergencies.

In today’s its unfortunate but simply necessary. I’d much prefer to live in a society that’s free of these worries but until we as a nation, not a village, become serious about reasonable gun control measures these risks will remain and we must act in mitigation.

I am advocating for the placement of school resource officers in all of our schools. I fully recognize having an armed police officer in our schools generates very strong emotional responses on both sides. Make no mistake, there are already armed officers in our school. As I understand the status quo, Scarsdale Police officers already visit our schools on a regular basis, in full uniform, armed with handguns.

To the best of my knowledge our kids don’t come home saying how frightened they were to see a police officer in the school. I for one want my children to know that the police are their friends, people they can turn to in times of trouble. I would rather have a friendly face walking through the schools, greeting children by name, giving high fives in a friendly hello rather than a strange different face every time an officer visits.

I am not advocating a new concept. I just want to see the presence of police officers in our schools encompass the entire school day. It’s for another day and perhaps another forum to debate the drawbacks of this idea but there can be no delay in starting a serious discussion.

The implications of failing to act are lifelong.

I thank the members of the district safety committee for their time, interest and efforts. I wonder though if any members have a personal background in emergency response or planning; an independent, factual basis on which to rely in evaluating various options.

Scarsdale is the home of executives at several international security companies, senior property managers for large commercial properties and parents who serve as volunteer firefighters and EMS personnel. Why don’t we take advantage of this homegrown expertise in this area. Look to draw upon the knowledge already present in our community.

I would like to leave you with one final thought. My older son attends the middle school and last year there was a threat of violence on a particular day. Some parents chose to keep their children home. They clearly agreed that the danger was very real.

We did not keep our son home. Instead we relied on the Scarsdale Police Department and its dedicated officers to maintain a safe environment. I don’t recall hearing any concerns that the police should not have been at the school that day. This was a known public threat. The threats not publicized ahead of time are the ones that should worry us most.

If having a police presence made sense on a day like that, what makes it any less appropriate on any other day. My son came home that afternoon and told me that he and his friends had never felt so safe at school due to the visible police presence. Let that safe feeling extend to every day and reduce one cause of stress in our children.

I for one would be very interested in hearing what our students have to say about the issue. I found them to be bright, insightful, and well able to express their own thoughts.

Thank you sincerely for allowing me the forum and the time to address this.

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