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District Administrators Field Questions About Their Response to the Lockout at SHS

BookshelfJust days after an unnamed threat closed Scarsdale High School, the Board of Education heard a debrief on the administration’s handling of the incident and posed questions about the response and protocols. Also on the agenda was an education report outlining new initiatives in the curricula at all grade levels.

Superintendent Hagerman began the meeting with a tribute to longtime elementary and middle school teacher Marianne Madoff, who passed away last week. You can read more about her dedication to Scarsdale Schools here. Hagerman described her as someone who “ignited learning and inspired students… she lived her values." During her memorial, high school senior Samantha Wachs remembered Ms. Madoff as someone who was "always a guiding light… her kindness, openness, and passion for teaching will forever be remembered by her students and the surrounding community.”

The Incident on May 21

Next, the administration addressed the event at the top of everyone’s mind – the May 21st incident at the high school and subsequent lockdown. The exact nature of the threat remains under wraps.

Assistant Superintendent Rauschenbach reviewed the timeline and stated that a verbal threat was reported to a staff member on Friday morning, and the Threat Assessment Team immediately assembled. The team announced the lockout at 11:05 AM, called in police presence, and decided on an early dismissal around midday. About students who left the school during the lockdown, Rauschenbach said, “We determined that if students were finished with their school day they could leave through one of our marked entrances.” At 1:05 the entire school was dismissed en masse.

During this time, the Scarsdale Police Department (SPD) investigated and attempted to directly contact the source of the threat. They ultimately reached the source later in the day. Several announcements were made about the lockdown over the school PA system and six emails were sent to parents over six hours. Unfortunately, there were technical difficulties in activating the Blackboard Connect emergency text system to reach students.

Dr. Hagerman recognized the frustration many in the community feel about the lack of transparency, and he reviewed the guidelines that prohibit the administration from revealing details surrounding the event. He added that threats against schools are usually made by students, parents, or other community members. As a result, the administration must be extra cautious when sending out written communications, as there is a high probability that the person making the threat will also receive the message and could use the information to further put the safety of students at risk.

He reassured parents that fire drills, bus evacuations, lockdown and lockout drills required by the state have been done with the students, despite the COVID closures.

Board member Karen Ceske inquired about the failure to send out text communications, which the administration says is fully functional but was not applied correctly during this emergency. Board Member Amber Yusef asked why, if the school was in a lockout, students were permitted to go in and out of the building. The response was that, because the police had identified the source of the threat, it was determined that students could go in and out of the building. She also wanted to know if students were on the District Emergency Response Team (DERT).

Both Board members Karen Ceske and Carl Finger pointed out where the District Safety and Security policy could be found on the district website. Please find it here.

Vice President Alison Tepper-Singer asked how well the actions on Friday aligned with the protocol. While specific figures remain unknown at this time, the administration stated that it was a very effective lockout and dismissal was smooth. Dr. Hagerman added that he was pleased with the district’s coordination with the police during the incident.

Board member Robert Klein asked the administration to elaborate on the phrase "out of an abundance of caution," which the administration used frequently when describing their actions. Klein stated that this can be confusing because while the SPD may be called as a precaution, to some, a police presence may make the threat seem more dangerous than it is. He highlighted that not everyone feels protected by the police to begin with. Superintendent Hagerman stated that they use that expression to indicate that they are aware there is something to investigate. He said, “That while there can be a misalignment between the intention of “an abundance of caution” and reality, overall, the police bring a calming presence to the situation. “

Rauschenbach added that this phrase is used to assure the community that everyone is safe, but they are taking some extra steps.

Ron Schulhof suggested that one of the members of the Board of Education sit on the DERT team, but Pam Fuehrer said that since the team hasto be available to respond quickly, there would not be time to call in a Board member to participate.

During public comments, resident Michelle Sterling said the cell service at the school makes it difficult for kids to get calls or send texts which poses problems in an emergency situation. She asked for this to be addressed.

About the administration’s response on Friday Sterling said, “One of the things we teach our children is that you don’t always do everything right. People make mistakes, and when you do make a mistake, to own up to it and learn from it.” She said, “It is important for the administration to own up to their mistakes.” She recalled a similar incident two years ago at the middle school that had several technical and protocol failures, and she chastised the administration for not correcting these same mistakes. She said, “It’s very painful to never hear a mea culpa from our Superintendent.” While Sterling stated that she understands why certain information cannot be shared publicly, she criticized what she saw as “zero empathy” in the communications from the school. She concluded by asking the Superintendent to take ownership and apologize for the failures that occurred on May 21.

Dr. Hagerman responded that students who have Wifi should have no trouble communicating, despite the fact that the school is in a dead zone. About empathy, he said, “It is certainly our goal to be empathic in these communications. We go through an active process of debriefing.”

Education Report:

The next action item of the evening was the presentation of the last Education Report of the academic year entitled Re-energizing our Educational Goals Aligned to Scarsdale's Strategic Plan.

Nancy Pavia, the Elementary Math Coordinator, presented the steps taken at the elementary level to improve math instruction. Next year, 51 teachers will pilot three new programs with the intent to adopt the most successful strategy for the 2022-2023 school year. While the current program Primary Math meets content standards, educators determined it does not meet practice standards. Examples of practice standards include “using appropriate tools strategically,” “reasoning abstractly and quantitatively,” and “looking for and making use of structure.” Board Vice President Alison Tepper-Singer pointed out that often programs that focus on language density are very challenging for children with special needs. Ms. Pavia assured her that each pilot program is problem-based and will engage students without being word-heavy.

Elementary Science Coordinator Jenn Kylie presented an upgraded science learning plan for our youngest students. This upcoming school year, a new science curriculum will continue to be piloted. The biggest shift is that these new standards no longer require students to memorize scientific facts in isolation. Board Member Carl Finger later highlighted the impressive work the schools are doing. He stated that the last curriculum was implemented only eight years ago, and that “constant thought about what we are doing keeps us ahead of the curve and [maintains] a good educational experience.”

Next, Middle School Principal Meghan Troy presented on the classroom libraries project at the middle school. Teachers are shown to be the strongest influence over what students read, and giving middle schoolers fingertip access to a wide range of books through classroom libraries will increase reading rates. The middle school is currently working to expand these libraries and provide increased professional development opportunities for faculty. Board member Karen Ceske asked how the libraries are set up to engage reluctant readers or students who may feel overwhelmed with options. Ms. Troy again emphasized the importance of teacher recommendations, and the strong influence individual teachers have over what their students choose to read.

High School Principal Kenneth Bonamo spoke about the school’s Advanced Topics (AT) review. The AT program was created in 2007 to give teachers more flexibility in designing the most challenging curriculum offered at SHS. This program review began in 2019 to analyze course expectations and learning experiences, and evaluate how the AT curriculum promotes critical thinking. Educators from the Tri-State Consortium will be coming to the high school this winter to consult on the data collected through this review. These consultants will compare AT courses with more traditional AP courses and evaluate what best suits the needs of students.

Additionally, Mr. Bonamo addressed some college admission uncertainties. While many colleges made standardized testing optional during the pandemic, some institutions are moving away from these tests more permanently. Mr. Bonamo speculated that this may increase the emphasis on AP exams, as APs are not scored on a bell curve and every student has the opportunity to maximize their score.

Finally, Principle Bonamo stated that the administration will review the way high school assessments are conducted. Next year they will pilot a new schedule for the third marking period with no specific testing days to see if this increased flexibility improves students’ experiences. They will also explore using a rolling grade book instead of the dedicated marking period system (quarters). The school will work with the Technology Department to gauge the effectiveness and future use of new assessment tools that were used during the pandemic. Going forward, the staff will prioritize performance-based assessment practices by examining current assessment strategies and creating collaborative opportunities among the faculty.

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