Nearly six months after the Sandy Hook Elementary School tragedy, a panel of educators, students and community members discussed and sometimes debated strategies Saturday afternoon to make schools safer.
The roughly 70-minute discussion held at the Westlake Middle School/High School library was organized by state Sen. Greg Ball (R-Paterson) and featured comments from experts as well as officials and residents from throughout the 40th Senate district. Ball said he hoped to encourage open discussion on the issue.
Speakers raised issues ranging from having armed security guards in schools to ending unfunded mandates, which could free up funding to pay for greater protection.
Mount Pleasant Superintendent of Schools Dr. Susan Guiney said the district had recently taken additional safety measures by using a state grant to buy and install more monitoring cameras and door locks as well as a swipe card system for individuals who enter the school.
Despite the extra steps, Guiney warned there is no guarantee.
“There is no measure that is 100 percent foolproof,” she conceded.
Mount Pleasant Police Chief Louis Alagno said since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, school officials and police departments have taken part in Project Save. Its purpose is to encourage community stakeholders to sit down and plan how best to protect students, Alagno said. Mount Pleasant police and the town’s school representatives meet at least once a year.
The department also employs two detectives to serve as youth officers for the DARE program that is offered to fifth and sixth grade students in local schools. The police department has developed a positive relationship with current and former DARE students, Alagno said.
Somers resident Michael Kovalyk, a security consultant, recommended that schools have an armed guard or officer to confront a violent intruder. Districts should also allow teachers to be trained with a firearm and allowed to carry a weapon. New York State offers a course where security officers can receive certification to be armed, Kovalyk added.
Brewster High School senior Drew Podgorski said his school employs an armed resource officer who has “developed a rapport with students.” Youngsters feel free to speak with the officer about a wide range of topics, including sensitive subjects such as drug and alcohol abuse, Podgorski said.
Podgorski agreed with Kovalyk by saying that schools could enhance security by having armed teachers.
Valhalla resident Laurie Rogers-Smalley asked Ball if the state could provide additional funding for school safety programs. The senator responded that the state could help by providing additional funds to hire school resource officers, which have proven to be highly effective.
“We don’t know the number of deaths they have prevented,” Ball said.
Guiney, however, questioned the effectiveness of armed teachers or resource officers in schools. She said the gunman at Sandy Hook Elementary School used assault weapons. Therefore, a single security guard would have had difficulty protecting the school.
The importance of helping students with mental health issues was also addressed at the forum. Columbus Elementary School psychologist Nicole Lloyd told Ball, “You could always provide more funding for mental health.”
Guiney agreed that Mount Pleasant could use more help for students with mental health issues, particularly in the primary grades. The district’s elementary schools have one principal and one school psychologist, insufficient staffing to assist the number of pupils who need help.
Mount Pleasant Board of Education member Vincent D’Ambroso told Ball school districts need additional funding to properly address school safety and other issues. Districts are financially constrained by the 2 percent tax cap and unfunded state mandates, he mentioned.
Ball said already excessive property taxes need to be minimized because many residents have fled New York. He agreed with D’Ambroso that unfunded mandates must end. Gov. Andrew Cuomo must also pressure state lawmakers to approve many of the recommendations from a bipartisan commission that would curtail unfunded mandates.