By Melissa Hale-Spencer
GUILDERLAND — Despite rampant rumors about threats of school violence last Friday, the day went “very smoothly,” according to Superintendent Marie Wiles.
However, the absentee rate at the high school was 28 percent.
“Some of that could be because it was the day before the winter break and people had travel plans,” said Wiles, also noting illness was widespread.
The absentee rate at the middle school was 13 percent, and at the five elementary schools ranged from a low of 7 percent at Altamont to a high of 12 percent at Westmere, with Lynnwood, Pine Bush, and Guilderland falling in the more normal range of 10 or 11 percent, said Wiles.
“I had many calls from parents asking if it wassafe for their children to come to school today,” Wiles said on Friday afternoon. She told the parents it was “absolutely” safe.
School leaders worked closely with the Guilderland Police Department, Wiles said, to investigate the rumors and determined that they were “not a credible threat.”
She explained, “If it were credible, the police would have gotten information on who, what, when, and how,” she said. “There was none of that.”
Guilderland Police Chief Carol Lawlor said there were many rumors circulating. “We tried to track each one down,” she said. “Somebody heard kids talking or somebody got a text,” she said. “We followed up on every one and couldn’t pinpoint a specific person with starting them.”
She described the rumored threats of violence as “generic,” giving this example: “Someone’s bringing a gun to school on Friday and shooting it up.”
Nonetheless, police officers were stationed at the middle school and high school and traveled among the elementary schools on Friday, she said.
Lawlor said that, in the wake of last week’s shootings at the Sandy Hook Elementary school in Newtown, Conn., there were similar rumors in schools across the country. Locally, she knew of such rumors at Shaker and Ballston Spa. Wiles knew of similar rumors at Bethlehem and Sharon Springs.
And the Berne-Knox Westerlo Superintendent, Paul Dorward, sent a letter to parents on Dec. 20, stating there was a rumor students were planning an incident at the BKW secondary school. Dorward wrote that State Troopers and the Albany County Sheriff’s Office worked with school leaders and had “quickly and thoroughly investigated this rumor and have determined that there is no danger to students or staff at BKW.” (The italics are Dorward’s.)
Wiles posted a similar message on the Guilderland School District website on Dec. 19.
In the electronic age, said Lawlor, “there are so many more means of communication. Someone hears something and sends a text or Facebook message. Electronic communication brings more rumors to our attention.”
Lawlor stressed, “We absolutely did pay attention. Officers tracked a lot until we felt confident there was no credible threat.”
Lawlor had this advice for parents: “Do all you can to monitor what your kids are sending or receiving. Nothing is too small; we’ll look into anything.”
Along the same lines, Wiles said, “We ask parents to talk to their children about spreading a rumor. In this day of social media, with one click, it goes exponentially…. That’s an educational piece we can work on and are working on.”
Once before, also on the day before a vacation, Guilderland High School experienced a high rate of absenteeism after rumors had circulated electronically. On Feb. 13, 2004, attendance at the high school was down 20 percent after e-mails raced through the student population, spreading rumors, including some that said neo-Nazis or skinheads were going to fight African-American students and others that said they were going to fight with Hispanic students. The day was uneventful.
The next month, administrators held a meeting at the high school attended by about 200 concerned parents.
Wiles said this week, “Thinking about how we keep children safe is a high priority. It’s only part of the solution, though. The whole community has to come together on this — how we teach our children to use technology, how we monitor what they do and where they are.”
Wiles said the media — often with minute-long reports that lack depth or balance — makes the matter worse. “There’s no follow-up,” she said.
Wiles concluded, “I don’t know any place that can be guaranteed 100-percent safe and secure — not our homes, not a movie theater…”
As far as keeping schools safe, she said, putting an armed policeman at every school, for example, would mean resources would have to be taken from somewhere else in a era when budgets are tight.
“If you spend your resources locking doors,” she said, “you won’t be able to use it to teach the way information should be used and what should be passed along.