Lake Placid schools say no to resource officer, for now

Students walk through a hallway of Lake Placid Middle-High School Tuesday. (Enterprise photo — Griffin Kelly)

LAKE PLACID — Though U.S. schools are technically safer now than they were 20 years ago, the perception of violence and shootings is still at the forefront of teachers’, parents’ and students’ minds.

This is an issue that the Lake Placid Central School District Board of Education and many others have dealt with for years, but more so in the last 12 months in the wake of incidents like the shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, where a student killed 14 students and three staff members. How do you create a safe learning environment while avoiding one based on fear?

Essex County sheriff-elect David Reynolds, during his uncontested campaign, proposed putting school resource officers (SROs) in the 11 public school districts in the county. The program is currently in the Essex County Board of Supervisors 2019 tentative budget. North Elba Supervisor Roby Politi said the plan was for supervisors to reach out and see if their respective school districts were interested in such a program.

The Lake Placid school board declined the program at its Nov. 6 meeting. Two members abstained, and the other five voted against the SRO program. Lake Placid is currently the only district to opt out of the program. There’s still some ambiguity with the Westport and Elizabethtown-Lewis districts because those two could possibly merge in the near future.

Politi said it looks like the program will be approved even without Lake Placid on board. The SRO budget depends on how many schools want it. Those that do are required to provide $20,000 each to offset the cost. Politi said the final price for the program will be close to $500,000.

LPCSD Superintendent Roger Catania said board members are willing to consider having an SRO in the future, but at this point, they felt there were not enough details in the job description. What are the hours of the SRO? Do they have to dress in uniform and be armed at all times? Is there any other interaction with the students than being an armed presence? Whom does the SRO report to? This is some of the information the board would like to know.

“The prevailing feedback from the board was that they had more questions that just weren’t answered,” Catania said in a phone interview. “Conceptually, the board is still open to the idea. I think they just need more time to iron out the details.”

Though it’s not every hour of the day, Lake Placid village police often make the rounds at the middle-high and elementary schools, checking on the staff and students and making sure everyone is safe.

“We have a good relationship with the local police,” Catania said. “That helps increase our perception. Law enforcement is aware of what’s happening at the schools.”

Lake Placid Assistant Police Chief Chuck Dobson said the officers who do walkthroughs aren’t specifically looking for anything, just adding a presence. He, too, said the sheriff’s office SRO could be a good decision for the school district.

“Unfortunately, with our current staffing, we’re unable to provide a part-time or full-time resource officer,” he said. “I think the county officer is definitely worth exploring.”

LPCSD recently purchased and installed new security camera systems for both the middle-high and elementary schools, part of a capital project voters approved.

“We do increase our safety precautions with the rest of the country,” Catania said, “but we know our kids feel comfortable and confident in class.”

When Catania was researching SROs, he found that many schools that had them also had shootings.

“Just because you have the officer doesn’t mean you won’t have violence,” he said. “The correlation between the two is unclear.”

Catania and the board agreed that increasing school safety isn’t about hardening security but rather offering psychological support, which the school already does.

“Making the school safer deals more with access to mental health and creating a positive climate,” Catania said. “We actually have a number of options for students, staff and families. We have counselors and a psychologist in the middle-high school, and we have a counselor in the elementary school.”

At a meeting in October, the school board spoke with the four high school class presidents. When asked if they felt safe, all the student representatives said yes. They, too, felt an SRO could be a good idea, but they thought the armed aspect was excessive.

“Having an armed person in the school raises the possibility of students messing with the police officer,” freshman class President Astrid Livesay said.

Improving security just wasn’t a top priority for the four students. Instead, they focused more on concerns of friendly and supportive staff and student body, much like the board did.

“As it stands, I think our schools do have really positive environments,” Catania said, “and if there is something wrong and the students see something, they’ll tell a teacher or an administrator.”

Nearly a year ago, in December 2017, a 15-year-old Lake Placid student brought a loaded revolver and a knife to school in a drawstring backpack. Then-Principal Dana Wood was tipped off by another student of the dangerous contraband. He brought the 15-year-old into his office and confiscated the weapons without incident. Local police charged the student as a juvenile delinquent with criminal possession of a weapon on school grounds, a felony. This caused the local police walkthroughs to be more of a formalized practice, according to Dobson.

Despite that one case, Catania said violence isn’t common in the LPCSD.

“There is the occasional pushing and shoving and sometimes fisticuffs,” he said, “but there hasn’t been any shootings or knifings or major acts of violence.”