The issue of school safety has never been more prominent in our minds, as so many of us have been emotionally impacted by the tragedy of Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. What is our reaction as a school district? What do we do as individual leaders? How are we talking with our families and employees about the importance of this issue? Are there practical steps we should be taking right now?
The school district administration and Board of Education feel strongly about this issue and we are addressing the matter with a number of short-term and long-term initiatives.
In fact, safety in our schools has been a prominent focus over the past decade. Project SAVE (Safe Schools Against Violence in Education) legislation, enacted in the summer of 2000 under Governor Pataki, was the beginning of an increased emphasis on school safety. It included components on school safety, school district response (including building-level and district emergency response teams) and numerous other improvements and practices, along with other practical measures like fingerprint clearance checks for all who work with our children.
Our district implemented this good first step and improved upon it by conducting a safety audit in the 2004-05 school year. As a result, a formal physical safety upgrade of our schools has been implemented over time, along with additional changes in practices and protocols. The nearly $500,000 project included: the installation of video cameras (now numbering nearly 100) in strategic locations; door entry security, including programmable badge/chip security; and the 'buzz-in/intercom' procedure at our elementary schools.
Other changes have occurred over time based on the good work of our emergency response teams. These changes – particularly in the area of intruder alerts, threats to safety, crowd control, building logistics and many other areas – may seem commonplace today, but are actually the result of a great deal of thought and planning.
Our local law enforcement continues to play a strategic safety role with the district, with frequent communications between our respective organizations. While we don't necessarily acknowledge these exchanges in order to preserve the integrity and effectiveness of our partnership and to preserve safety, it is fair to say that we have never been more engaged with these dedicated professionals. And we are welcoming (in late February) an armed School Resource Officer (SRO) – a position that exists in other districts – who will begin working on the John Jay campus and will be available to all other schools as needed.
Is the work we have done to date enough? The answer is an emphatic no – and in fact, it is likely to never be completed. That's because school safety requires anticipation and preparation for changes occurring in our society over time. We don't know what the next heretofore unseen challenge will be. But we must try to prepare for it, or react quickly when and if it does manifest itself here or elsewhere.
Therefore, we can think about our status today as being composed of two strands: today's reality and tomorrow's vision.
Today's reality consists of two key elements. The first is an internal review and recalibration, as necessary, of existing procedures and protocols. Once again, our safety teams will be at the front line of helping determine how we can best help ourselves in this regard. This may include necessary changes for those who are employed by the district, send children to school, or use our school buildings. The second is an objective, outside audit of our school district’s safety. The Board has asked the administrative team to secure the services of an expert agency to conduct the audit. Both of these initiatives are being immediately addressed.
Tomorrow’s vision is concerned with the bigger picture of school safety, especially as it relates to budgetary impacts. Issues of safety that require a greater investment in personnel, more technology, or expanded use of outside firms will challenge the district’s already constricted revenues, but may be necessary to implement. This can only come about through careful investigation, deliberation and public support.
For now, we remain ever vigilant about the safety of our schools. Though it is often said, it has never more important to remind all of us that providing safe harbor for our students and staff is always our first priority.
Dr. Paul Kreutzer, Superintendent
Mark Lipton, BOE President
Charles Day, BOE Vice President