After Uvalde, security at local schools reviewed

The day after last month’s mass elementary school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, Lake Placid School District Superintendent Timothy Seymour was filled with dread as he dropped his 3-year-old son off at daycare.

“I felt that in my gut at a level that I had never felt before the day after that incident,” he said.

He felt like the Lake Placid school district needed to renew its focus on the school’s existing safety measures — not only to provide students with more security, but also to pay some recognition to the angst that other parents who have students in the district might be feeling.

Seymour sent out emails to local law enforcement the same day as the Uvalde shootings, requesting that officers sweep the school district’s buildings the next day to assess their state of security.

The law enforcement sweep of the school district included an evaluation of the schools’ entrance and exit procedures, an audit of the schools’ security cameras and an assessment of other ways the district could ensure students’ safety while they’re at school. It wasn’t just a courtesy walkthrough, either — as a result of the sweep, the district ordered more security cameras and six more key card access pads to be installed next to school doors to reduce the possible temptation to prop doors open.

When Seymour emailed the district’s staff and board of education explaining his rationale for the sweep request, he got some emails back from district staff saying they felt the same way. A lot of people who work in the district are parents, Seymour said, and they told him it was hard to come to school the day after the shootings.

“They felt that added layer of concern from a primitive parental standpoint,” Seymour said.

The Lake Placid Central School District typically assesses security and safety each fall, according to Seymour, but he told the district’s board of education last week that the district is considering doing an even more comprehensive review of school safety over the summer.

Call to action

Seymour called the Uvalde shooting “a tipping point” — he thought “everyone felt a call to action after that.”

Two parents in the Keene Central School District answered that call.

Keene resident Jennifer Whitney has kids in the Keene Central School District, and she said they were upset and scared to go to school after the Uvalde shootings. Whitney wanted to do something to protect them.

“I was just like, ‘What can I do to make them feel better?'” she said. “‘I don’t need to sit back and wait for the teachers or the staff.'”

Whitney asked Keene Central School District Superintendent Dan Mayberry about improving door safety, floating the idea of installing a new locking mechanism on doors like some other schools have done. She said Mayberry told her that a permanent lock on the door wouldn’t be up to code, but they’re looking into getting removable door locks that could be put in place when necessary. Mayberry mentioned that the district also reviewed its safety procedures and practice drills after the Uvalde shootings, and he said district staff reminded students about the importance of keeping doors closed.

Whitney said another parent in the district made a post on social media saying he wanted to do something to improve school safety, too. She reached out to him, and he said he wanted to work on improving emergency communications in the district by installing a radio system. Right now, Mayberry said, there aren’t radios and phones in every classroom, though there’s a PA system that can call into each classroom. Whitney said that if every class had a radio, police could tune into the district’s radio channel in the event that they need to communicate with individual classrooms while an active shooter is in the building. Radios could also better ensure the safety of a kid who’s suffering from a diabetic episode, an injury, or even a simple nosebleed, Whitney said — bringing in radios would improve student safety in multiple ways.

Whitney has a goal of implementing the new safety measures by the start of the next school year this fall. She thought her kids felt a little more comforted after her efforts to improve their safety at school, but she still said that “anything could happen anywhere.”

Some schools are “tightly regulated”

Tupper Lake Central School District Superintendent Russell Bartlett said his district is always looking for ways to improve school security, but he said the district currently has a “pretty tightly-regulated situation” when it comes to who’s coming and going from the district’s buildings. The district also has school resource officers — police officers from the Tupper Lake Police Department — in each building.

The district may start on a capital project — if it’s approved by voters — that would reconstruct the building’s entrances to be even more secure and controlled. Right now, Bartlett said, district staff have to walk a little ways from their office to the front door when someone comes to the school. With the new entrances, there’d be an entry space with a receptionist where visitors would have to state their purpose for coming to the school and be buzzed in to the main building.

Bartlett said that in January 2019, he attended a superintendent’s conference that included a live-action shooter drill with New York State Police. He said the drill sparked an in-depth discussion about what the district’s vulnerabilities were, and the entrance reconstruction is one way the district is addressing them. The capital reconstruction project still needs to be approved in a public referendum later this year, Bartlett said.

Bartlett wished that schools these days didn’t have to worry so much about their students’ safety.

“We keep saying that somethings got to change, we keep saying that somethings got to change — but we keep putting more safety measures in because we keep hearing about more things happening. I don’t know where that ends,” he said. “You spend every night at some point thinking about the possibility, and it’s just the nature of the world we live in, apparently.”

Stopping threats before they start

Saranac Lake Central School District Superintendent Diane Fox said in the nine years she’s been superintendent, prevention and safety have improved a lot. Unfortunately, she said, that’s because of an increased need.

At a SLCSD board meeting last Wednesday, Fox read an email she sent to staff after a mass school shooting. Only at the end did she reveal this letter was written after a shooting in February 2018.

In her letter, Fox said she wishes she could say an act of violence would never happen here, but she can “never say never.” At the same time, she said people “cannot live fully” in a world with a “constant undercurrent of fear.”

SLCSD board member Tori Thurston said she’s had discussions with her daughter about school shootings, a tough topic that’s given her a lot of tears and sleepless nights as a mother.

Safety has always on the forefront for school leaders, Fox said, but it’s become more serious in the past few years. When she started nine years ago, the district had just started requiring all doors to be locked at all times.

SLCSD now has a two-pronged approach to school threats, Fox said during a board of education discussion on school safety last week. Fox said the district does threat prevention and management — developing plans to mitigate threats of violence. This is important, she said, and the district works on improving it constantly. She also said the district does threat assessment — understanding and stopping threats before anything might happen.

Fox cited a paraphrased Cherokee proverb as inspiration — “Pay attention to the whispers, so we won’t have to listen to the scream.”

She described a “violent act continuum.” This usually starts with a grievance and then moves to more serious phases — violent ideation, research and planning an attack, preparing for an attack and actually carrying out an attack.

She said there have almost always been people at some point along this continuum, saying when students feel they are the victim of a grievance, they can begin having violent thoughts. This is like an adult getting road rage and thinking about a car that cut them off crashing, she said.

The district’s goal is to de-escalate people along this path, and she said SLCSD has a “robust” mental health support system for students. The district has five school psychologists, six school counselors, one school social worker, a nurse in each school, a community school liaison, a community school coordinator and also contracts with outside agencies, Fox said.

There are also student support teams in each building, she added. These teams of administrators, counselors and nurses meet to discuss and assess student mental health weekly, she said, and to get at-risk students resources.

Thurston said people should voice concerns if they have them. She said it’s better to check out something that isn’t a problem than for a tragedy to occur.

She said the phrase “it takes a village” is cliche, but applicable in this situation.

Fox said the district is exploring the idea of purchasing an anonymous reporting software. This would bring in an anonymous text tip line with someone who is not a school official on the other end.

SLCSD board member Mark Farmer said this could make it easier for people to get over hesitancy to get involved.

Fox said other school districts use systems like this and felt SLCSD is missing it.

The Saranac Lake district, as with all New York school districts, is required to have plans for emergencies, but Farmer said SLCSD started working on these plans before the state required schools to have them.

The school safety plan is updated yearly and is on the district website. But it isn’t there in full. It’s best to keep some parts of the plans secret for security’s sake, Farmer said. This can be frustrating for concerned parents, he said, but district officials say it’s necessary to not publicly broadcast some of the things they do.

Village and State Police have access to these plans and maps of school buildings in their cars, Fox said.

Fox said teachers are trained in how to avoid injury during a shooting using the “ALICE” method — alert, lockdown, inform, counter, evacuate.

In 2019, all the district’s buildings updated swipecard systems, cameras were installed around the buildings, a visitor screening system was introduced, more people were put in main offices, fire alarms were updated and PA systems were fixed.

That year, doors were also installed on all rooms at Bloomingdale Elementary School and its key system was updated.

Jen Patnode, who lives in the Saranac Lake school district, asked if the school board would consider bringing in school resource officers to its buildings.

Farmer said the board has discussed and debated this in the past, and though no plan has ever worked out, the board is “always open to reinvestigating it.” He believes the importance of an SRO is less about the position itself and more about the person who holds it. He said he’d want to make the best hire.

Farmer said there is pending legislation at higher government levels which could provide funding for SROs. Thurston said she would support the hiring of SROs.

Fox said the topic of SROs will likely be discussed again in the near future.

Recent threats, local rally

In the week after the Uvalde shooting, the Tupper Lake and Saranac Lake school districts each had threats of violence that were quickly deemed not credible. Students at both schools were arrested after the threats and the student in Tupper Lake was charged with making a terroristic threat, a felony.

Bartlett said having an SRO in the building helped resolve the situation and ensure the school was safe quickly.

On June 11, a Northwood School student organized a “March For Our Lives” rally in Saranac Lake’s Riverside Park, calling for gun control legislation and for the federal government to address what he calls a “gun violence epidemic.”

More than 150 people attended the event.


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