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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.