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School safety front and center

Concerns over school security in the wake of the recent school shooting in Florida have caused some parents, school officials and law enforcement officers to call for armed guards in school buildings, more heavily fortified entrances and even panic rooms.

The shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida that killed 17 people and injured others has reignited the conversation about safety in schools.

The New York State Sheriff’s Association on Thursday called on the Legislature to include funding in the 2018 state budget to put at least one armed school resource officer at every grade school and high school in the state.

“This will be an expensive undertaking, but we owe it to our children, and their parents, to provide a safe place for education to take place,” said Wayne County Sheriff Barry Virts, president of the New York State Sheriff’s Association, in a news release.

The association estimated that the cost would be equivalent to adding one teacher to each of the schools. Virts pointed out that the state spends millions of dollars to provide protection for judges across the state.

“Surely we can also find the money to protect our most defenseless people — the children we send off to school each day,” he said.

Washington County Sheriff Jeff Murphy and Warren County Sheriff Bud York also support armed officers in schools.

“I think it’s something the community needs to talk about. I’m not saying you need to do it,” York said.

York has scheduled a meeting with regional school superintendents, principals and law enforcement officers to get their thoughts and ideas. The meeting will take place from 3:30 to 5 p.m. March 7 at Lake George Junior-Senior High School.

York first made the suggestion for armed officers five years ago after the Sandy Hook shooting.

“Nobody felt they wanted armed officers in the schools,” he said.

Instead, York said he had patrol officers visit schools throughout the county on a regular basis. There is a dedicated office in each building. Officers are required to stop in on a daily basis to talk to administrators and faculty to see if they have any concerns. The police are also visible to the students.

York said he has gotten a positive response from the program.

“It makes them feel more comfortable that they’re around,” he said.

The idea for armed officers is gaining support from parents. Whitehall resident Joe Daniels has launched an effort to increase school security in light of the Florida shooting and an incident in Fair Haven, Vermont, where an 18-year-old man threatened to cause “mass casualties” at a school.

“That’s 8 miles away,” Daniels said.

He said he is concerned about a lack of protection at the front entrance — even if it is just a small chance Whitehall could have a school shooting.

“Our only defense right this moment is to be buzzed into the building or not. That just doesn’t seem like enough,” he said.

Daniels said he does not think it would be too expensive to hire someone at $20 per hour. The area has a lot of retired corrections officers who are still looking for work to do to keep busy.

Daniels said he would be willing to pay more in taxes, such as $50 more per year, if that is what it took to secure the school.

He and other concerned parents plan to discuss the issue at the Board of Education meeting at 6 p.m. Monday.

Among his other ideas are possibly creating panic rooms in classrooms, installing mechanisms on the door hinges and handles that make doors more difficult to open and eliminating the large expanse of glass at the front entrance.

Whitehall Superintendent Patrick Dee wrote in an email that school officials met immediately following the Parkland shooting to discuss what more can be done. The district is implementing a “see something/hear something/say something” policy for staff following recess. A text number and phone number are being created for tips to the school.

Dee said the community must remain vigilant.

“The best way to stop these horrific incidents is to stop them before they come to fruition. Parents and community members must report concerns to the police. Don’t ignore concerns or behavior that is concerning,” he said.

Granville is currently the only school district in Washington County that has a school resource officer. This is the second year that Sgt. Dave Williams, a retired Granville police officer, has roamed the halls. Superintendent Thomas McGurl said the program benefits the school tremendously.

“It provides an additional resource and skill set to our school’s management team. He is also a very beneficial resource for parents and students,” he said in an email.

In Queensbury, parent Megan Hayes is also circulating a petition calling for tighter security.

“I feel there does need to be somebody armed there. I don’t feel safe dropping my child off at school,” she said.

Hayes cited the incident last May, when a bomb threat caused the evacuation of the entire campus.

“It could happen at Queensbury. It could happen at a little school like North Warren where I went to school,” she said.

“It’s just the world that we live in today, unfortunately,” she added.

Hayes also agrees that mental health needs to be part of the conversation.

Queensbury Superintendent of Schools Douglas Huntley said the district is re-evaluating its procedures in the wake of school shootings.

The district’s physical infrastructure has been upgraded over the past few years. The entrances at the elementary school, intermediate school for grades four and five and middle school have been renovated to create secure vestibules.

More than 20 cameras are installed in Queensbury Elementary School alone, including at all the entrances, according to Huntley. School officials have the ability to switch to certain cameras.

During the school day, only the front entrance can be used.

“Once they’re all in, the building is locked down,” Huntley said.

A visitor to the building must be buzzed in from the outside to get into the lobby. Then, they must present a photo identification, which is scanned and run through a background check to see if the person is a sex offender or has other criminal issues. The computer system also keeps a list of what guests are in the building at any given time. Then, the person must be buzzed in through a second set of double doors to get into the hallway and another set of doors to get into the academic portion.

This is in contrast to the old system that allowed people to walk into the building, sign in and then have access to the school.

The glass in the vestibule is shatterproof and bullet resistant, but not bulletproof, according to Bill O’Reilly, assistant director of facilities and operations. O’Reilly said bulletproof glass would be very expensive.

Rob Chapman, director of facilities, estimated that it cost about $100,000 to upgrade three of the four buildings’ facilities. This excludes the high school, which will be completed in February 2019 as part of the $40 million capital project.

Chapman said there are staff members such as couriers and maintenance workers who travel between buildings that keep an eye on things that happen on campus. Members of the public also inform the school of anything they see that looks out of place.

The district trains for a variety of emergencies including evacuations and drills. If there were an active shooter, Huntley said the teachers and students would shelter in place. Teachers would close and lock the door and they would hide in certain corners of the room away from the windows.

The district has a notification system that people can opt into to receive text messages, a phone call or email if there is an emergency, according to Huntley.

In addition, Huntley said the district has worked to address student mental health issues, including locating a clinic on campus. They also have a variety of programs.

“We have counselors and social workers here to support our students. Our teachers have been trained,” he said.

Huntley said he would like school resource officers to be in the district on a full-time basis. Queensbury used to have them, but State Police eliminated the program a few years ago. Huntley pointed out that there was an armed officer on duty at the Parkland shooting. Armed officers were present during the Virginia Tech and Columbine shootings.

“I think that they provide a higher level of security in the building, but obviously they don’t prevent these sorts of shootings from occurring,” he said.

Renewed push for armed officer at every New York school

ALBANY — With a New York sheriff’s group and a state Senate Republican pushing to have an armed police officer at every school in the state, what isn’t clear yet is who would foot the bill.

The New York State Sheriffs’ Association this week called on the Legislature to include funding in the next state budget for at least one armed school resource officer at every grade school and high school, which could run into the hundreds of millions of dollars.

There are about 4,500 school buildings in the 733 public school districts across the state. Private schools have about 2,000 buildings, according to the sheriff’s group.

Opponents of the plan point out that an armed officer didn’t stop last week’s massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. The school had one armed resource officer who never entered the school.

Republican Florida Gov. Rick Scott on Friday called for a trained law enforcement officer in every school in Florida by the time the 2018 school year begins.

School resource officers, or SROs, are typically local sheriff’s deputies or police officers. The number of SROs has dropped in recent years from about 400 to fewer than 200 full-time officers, the sheriff’s said. An SRO’s salary and benefits — which can range from $75,000 to $100,000 — is picked up by the school district, county government, or shared by both.

In New York City, enhanced security measures for the city’s 1,800 school buildings include active shooter drills to be held by mid-March and random screening by metal detectors at all middle and high schools. Legislation to put an armed officer in every New York City school passed the Republican-controlled state Senate last year, but didn’t pass in the Democratic-controlled Assembly.

“It’s important that we consider additional steps to protect students while they are at school and away from their families, and anything we can do to improve security has to be right at the top of that list,” said Scott Reif, a spokesman for the Senate’s GOP majority.

Sen. Patrick Gallivan, a western New York Republican who’s a former state trooper and Erie County sheriff, wants to see state-funded SROs in every school in the state.

“It is time to expand this program statewide, so that every school benefits from having a trained law-enforcement officer on-site,” Gallivan said.

Carl Heastie, speaker of the Democrat-controlled Assembly, is against the proposal and pointed out that having a trained armed officer on the premises didn’t prevent last week’s slaughter.

“More guns will not make us safer,” said Heastie, a Bronx Democrat. “We need to be talking about real solutions, and we need to pass common sense gun reforms that the majority of Americans support.”

The fact that the Broward County sheriff’s deputy assigned to the school didn’t enter the building to engage the shooter shouldn’t reflect badly on efforts to put SROs in every New York school, said Washington County Sheriff Jeff Murphy.

“The actions of that officer notwithstanding, it’s still a good proposition,” he said. “This would provide us with positive interaction with students while also having an officer there who could respond to a threat.”

A less costly option to full-time SROs would be to hire retired law enforcement officers, according to the New York State School Boards Association, which said each school district should determine its own security and safety needs.

“What works in one community may not work in another,” said David Albert, the organization’s spokesman. “School boards should make the decision locally, in conjunction with students, teachers and the community.”

Congress releases redacted, declassified Democratic memo

WASHINGTON — Two weeks after President Donald Trump blocked the full release of a classified Democratic memo, the House intelligence committee published a redacted version of the document that aims to counter a narrative that Republicans on the committee have promoted for months — that the FBI and Justice Department conspired against Trump as they investigated his ties to Russia.

The Democratic memo's release on Saturday was the latest development in an extraordinary back and forth between Republicans and Democrats about the credibility of not only the multiple inquiries into links between the Trump campaign and Russia, but also about the credibility of the nation's top law enforcement agencies.

The Democratic document attempts to undercut and add context to some of the main points from a declassified Republican memo that was released earlier this month. In that memo, Republicans took aim at the FBI and the Justice Department over the use of information compiled by British spy Christopher Steele in obtaining a secret warrant to monitor the communications of former Trump campaign foreign policy adviser Carter Page.

The GOP memo included the assertion that the FBI obtained a surveillance warrant without disclosing that Steele's anti-Trump research was funded by Democrat Hillary Clinton's campaign and the Democratic National Committee.

The Democratic memo counters that the Justice Department disclosed "the assessed political motivation of those who hired him" and that Steele was likely hired by someone "looking for information that could be used to discredit" then-candidate Trump's campaign.

Republicans say that is not enough, since Clinton and the DNC were not named. President Donald Trump himself seized on this point in a tweet Saturday evening: "Dem Memo: FBI did not disclose who the clients were - the Clinton Campaign and the DNC. Wow!"

The White House had objected to the Democratic memo's release, citing national security concerns on Feb. 9. That sent the Democrats back to negotiations with the FBI, which approved a redacted version on Saturday. It was then declassified and released.

Trump had no such concerns about the GOP memo, which he declassified in full on Feb. 2 over strong objections from the FBI.

The Democratic memo asserts that the FBI's concerns about Page long predate the Steele dossier, and that its application to monitor his communications details suspicious activities he undertook during the 2016 presidential campaign. That includes a July 2016 trip to Moscow in which he gave a university commencement address.

The memo also contends that the Justice Department provided "additional information from multiple independent sources that corroborated Steele's reporting" in the dossier. Most of the details of the corroborated information are redacted but they do appear to reference Page's meeting with Russian officials. 

The memo also details Russian attempts to cultivate Page as a spy. It cites a federal indictment of two Russian spies who allegedly targeted Page for recruitment and notes that the FBI interviewed him based on those suspicions in March 2016.

The Democrats say the FBI made "made only narrow use of Steele's sources" in the warrant in the secret court that operates under Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA.

Republicans say that is still too much.

"Again, the fact the minority cannot outright deny that a DNC/Clinton funded document was used to wiretap an American is extremely concerning," the Republican National Committee said in a statement.

Trump has said the GOP memo "vindicates" him in the ongoing Russia investigation led by special counsel Robert Mueller. But congressional Democrats and Republicans, including House Speaker Paul Ryan and Rep. Trey Gowdy of South Carolina, who helped draft the GOP memo, have said it shouldn't be used to undermine the special counsel.

Partisan disagreements on the intelligence committee have escalated over the last year as Democrats have charged that Republicans aren't taking the panel's investigation into Russian election meddling seriously enough. They say the GOP memo is designed as a distraction from the probe, which is looking into whether Trump's campaign was in any way connected to the Russian interference.

Republicans say they are just alerting the public to abuses they say they've uncovered at the Justice Department and FBI.

The top Democrat on the intelligence panel, California Rep. Adam Schiff, said Saturday that the memo should "put to rest any concerns that the American people might have" as to the conduct of the FBI, the Justice Department and the court that issued the secret warrant.

The review "failed to uncover any evidence of illegal, unethical, or unprofessional behavior by law enforcement," he said.

White House press secretary Sarah Sanders disagreed. She said that Trump supported the redacted release of the memo in the interest of transparency, but "nevertheless, this politically driven document fails to answer serious concerns raised by the majority's memorandum about the use of partisan opposition research from one candidate, loaded with uncorroborated allegations, as a basis to ask a court to approve surveillance of a former associate of another candidate, at the height of a presidential campaign."