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District Confronts School Security Issues Following Lockdown at SMS

raptorThe April 8 meeting of the Scarsdale Board of Education included another lengthy discussion of school security. Updates on security have become a regular agenda item, and with the April 2 lockdown at the middle schools on everyone’s mind, security was again on the table. At the opening of the meeting, Dr. Hagerman sought to offer an explanation for the district’s response to the school lockdown that occurred at around 2 pm, shortly before dismissal time. Due to the lockdown, students were kept inside the school, some under their desks, for an hour and half while the school was searched. Parents, some of whom were outside waiting to pick up their children, were not given any information and many have complained.

Dr. Hagerman said the district was beta testing a lockdown system at SMS, when an employee at another school inadvertently set off the alarm and disabled the swipe card system at the middle school. He explained that if the system had been operating properly it would have alerted the police department and the district’s emergency response team (DERT), however that functionality was not set up. The middle school followed normal procedures and advised the police.

He said, “We did advise the police early on that we thought it was a false alarm, but they (the police) wanted to do a search of the building and we were supportive of their wish to do so. The sweep pushed us past the end of the school day resulting in delays in bus service and the middle school, Fox Meadow, Heathcote and Quaker Ridge.”

He continued, “There have been some key learnings around the event…. The biggest issue was communication. Although there were many reasons, initial communication out to parents was unacceptably slow. We also relied on emails for affected elementary schools instead of calls and we are rectifying this immediately so it doesn’t happen again. We are certainly sorry for the delays.”

“We understand that a vacuum of information can lead to an erosion of trust and we will strive to be as timely as we can in the future to ensure that these kind of delays don’t happen again.”

He explained that a series of debriefings were underway and said the administration had received a lot of feedback and “are on a journey of continuous improvement in this area and are responding to the feedback that we got accordingly.”

However, that explanation did not sit well with some. During the public comments section, Ron Schulhof, who has been selected as a candidate for school board said, “I found the emails and communications from our superintendent to be unacceptable. They were not timely, they lacked important information and details, they show no real signs of empathy for the situation or those involved and they certainly show no desire to hear feedback. This is simply unacceptable. I also do not believe the comments provided earlier are an appropriate way to get information to the community – at this sparsely attended board meeting. This information needs to go out to everyone. I am here because I believe in being constructive and I want to share some suggestions for improvement in areas where I think improvement is needed.

First is timeliness. Most parents understand that during an incident all hands are on deck but there needs to be a system to get out communication quickly. We cannot wait over an hour leaving a vacuum where information from other sources is rapidly being shared, and we don’t know the source of that information. I know that “this was due to unusual circumstances, but we also know this is likely the case when communication is so important. The district needs to find a way to be prepared. Content needs to be clear, detailed and coordinated. We should not have to find out secondhand from a parent whose kid just happens to have a phone in the classroom. You guys need to be the source of information. Once the school was reopened, we should receive an email with a complete explanation of the event…. details included.”

Feedback should be sought pro-actively from teachers, administrators at the school as well as parents. If debriefs have already begun, the board should recognize that sometimes it can be difficult to give candid feedback to your boss in a difficult situation. The Board should consider the best way to solicit feedback so that we can improve. What’s so disconcerting to me as a parent about the lack of communication and the appearance of disorder is that so much of our security is not public and we have to have faith that the district is prepared. The handling of the last two incidents at Quaker Ridge and SMS do not give me comfort. The comments given at the start of the meeting also do not give me comfort. Let’s be better and let’s improve together.” Ron prefaced his comments by highlighting his appreciation for everything the teachers, school administrators and staff do everyday and especially during these events to keep everyone's children in a safe environment."

Responding to complaints about the district response, Superintendent Thomas Hagerman said, “We were beta testing our system. No one was supposed to know the codes. (Discussing the fact that the system did not place emergency phone calls) he said, “Edgar and I were in training in Yorktown. This was unique to this situation because it is not a system that we use. If we had been using our normal system this would not have happened. We use blackboard connect to communicate. It takes a few minutes to set it up. That should be able to happen within a few minutes. Blackboard Connect also has texting ability that we have not used.”

Department of Homeland Security

During a discussion of security, later at the meeting, Ass’t Superintendent Stuart Mattey reported that the Department of Homeland Security had done a walk through of the high school with himself, Assistant Principal Chris Griffin and a representative from the Scarsdale police. They reviewed plans and procedures for a lockdown such as where staff is placed and doors are manned. Mattey said that the representative from the Department of Homeland Security made some helpful suggestions and “confirmed a lot of our efforts around safety and security. We are ahead in our training and thinking.”

He reported that security firm Altaris did a review as well and said that 32 of 97 items on the security list had been approved, with the exception of “unmanned aircraft” and “smoke cannons” which were discussed but dismissed.

About numbering rooms he said, it “seems so simply but it is not so simple as many of our classrooms currently have no numbers – or have numbers that are illogical.” He said, “We may need to re-order our buildings to do it the correct way.”

Visitor Management System

Security Chief Mike Spedaliere reported that the new visitor management system (RAPTOR) was being rolled out in schools in late April and early May. With this new system, visitor’s drivers licenses will be scanned, checked against sex offender alerts and any custom alerts. Mattey said the system will “Maintain a welcoming environment but keep those we don’t want out at the same time.” In addition, Quaker Ridge and Heathcote schools now have safety monitors in the schools and monitors will be added at other elementary schools next year.

Security Vestibules

Security vestibules will be installed at the elementary schools this summer. At the meeting, the Board approved funds to build these, though the bid came in $139,850 above budget due to the fact that the State Education Department requested changes in the doors and camera systems, requiring fire doors, steel, electronics and a fire alarm system. The board approved a resolution for $574,000 for contracting plus $238,000 for electronics.

Roger Neustadt, who heads the Scarsdale Coalition for Safer Schools was not at all satisfied. Here are excerpts from the lengthy comments he made toward the end of the meeting

“I am going to ask you to imagine that now the first shots have been fired at Parkland, the first shots have been fired at Sandy Hook, the note declaring a bomb threat has just been discovered at Quaker Ridge and the lockdown has just been initiated at the middle school.” (Intermittently during his comments he stopped to note the time and sequence of the above events to highlight the importance of rapid response.)

I find it great that the DHS walk through was helpful and identified a few possible areas for improvement, I am mystified at the continued resistance of both the board and district to get the same result by having an audit of Altaris in our schools by an independent security company.

I have a question about the security cameras? Is the police given access to the security feeds? They are the ones that can follow this.

I haven’t spoken before this group for some time because a board member told me that a comment by one parent does not show sufficient interest for serious board attention.

There was widespread frustration with the district’s communication one hour after a lockdown was in place. By then we all knew about the lockdown, but everything else was rumor. The district stands in loco parentis. When no information comes we look to Facebook, to Scarsdale moms and to texts.

Think again about confiscating phones before a lockdown. This will heighten fears.
According to my kids, teachers did not know what was going on. Shouldn’t there be a way to inform teachers so that they can inform their students and calm fears? Teachers had no idea the police were in the schools.

What do kids do if they are on their way to the office or an errand when the lockdown occurs? Shouldn’t they receive instructions? Has this board asked any of these questions of the district?

Some of the middle school teachers barricaded their doors – others did not – some confiscated student’s cellphones – others did not – every incident is different.

We still have not numbered our classrooms. A year to get one school numbered? To blame inconsistent behavior on the fact that each incident is unique? Every classroom should be treated the same.

Our teachers should be commended. We are thankful for their actions during extremely trying situations.

The community was told that at Quaker Ridge the police were called within a few minutes of the lockdown. My wife was there at 10:15 am for a book fair and could not get into the school. The police received their first call at 10:29, that’s 14 minutes. There was a delay, plain and simple.

Last week it took 12 minutes between the time the lockdown was initiated and the notification of the police. Let’s be clear this is a delay.

Shooting incidents at schools are usually over within 10 minutes, often due to the response of law enforcement…whether law enforcement ends the shooters life or the shooter takes his own life.

It is time for this board to do more than accept district requests and approve district policy.

What if it was your daughter who walked out of the fitness room into an active shooter situation? What if it was your son who became overheated and weak because the district has not placed water bottles in the classrooms – that’s on the list. What if it was your child who didn’t answer their phone because you had no idea their phone was confiscated.

These happen because of a lack of district policy. It is your children and your neighbor’s children. Be independent. Take action to protect our children.

The Board should require the administration to take advantage of free resources in our community. There are gaps. We have numerous security professionals in the district that want to help. And what have they been told? Phone calls and emails go unanswered. There is complete resistance to any input from the outside. Form a panel of security experts.

Our kids are not protected. There have been two lockdowns. Our kids remain unprotected by community resources that are there to protect them. Parents are worried. Don’t just hear it, listen and act.

And I have to add one more thing: Stuart is about to take on the Greenacres Project. It is a massive undertaking. He is also in charge of the budget, food service and security. He works like a dog. You’re splitting Stuart four ways. It’s not realistic unless you provide more resources.

Watch the meeting here:

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