After Parkland, BKW students have many questions

The Enterprise — H. Rose Schneider

The Berne-Knox Westerlo School District gave students a chance to ask questions last Thursday about responding to a school shooting, and they had many.

BERNE — Berne-Knox-Westerlo students in grades 6, 8, and 9 were given the chance last Thursday to ask questions about what to do if there were a shooter in their school. The questions raised during an assembly ranged from practical, to fanciful, to grim:

“Would an active shooter go to the top floor or the bottom floor?” asked one student.

“Would the student go to jail if they took the gun and shot the bad guy?” asked another.

“What if the shooter has a suppressor?” asked a boy, referring to a gun silencer.

“When we’re defending ourselves, I don’t want to kill the guy,” said one girl. Other students in the audience began debating whether it was right to kill someone if it was in self-defense.

Another student wanted to know if a shooter could pick off people one by one in secret. Another asked about why parents are often buzzed into the elementary school without first identifying themselves. And a teacher spoke on behalf of a student to ask about arming staff.

Secondary School Principal Mark Pitterson told The Enterprise that the goal of the assembly was to listen to what the students were worried about and to make sure nothing like a shooter killing 17 people on Feb. 14 in a Parkland, Florida high school would happen in the small, rural BKW district.

The assembly included members of the Albany County Sheriff’s Office, the New York State Police, and Berne physician Dr. Kristin Mack. A second assembly was held later that day for grades 10 through 12 and one for grade 7 the following day.

Superintendent Timothy Mundell said that the assemblies are part of an initiative by the district to prepare for and prevent a school shooting. On March 16, teachers and other district staff will be receiving training from the sheriff’s office. The district has also been working with Mack so students have a resource to go to. Pitterson said that Mundell has also been discussing active-shooter drills with clergy groups who organize them.

“We just don’t want to do it right now … ,” Pitterson said. “Things are still raw.”

Speaking to the students before the assembly began, Pitterson acknowledged that they had likely heard about about the school shooting in Parkland and the surrounding debate either in the news or from their parents.

“All of us have been working side-by-side through the year, hand-in-hand, on your safety … ,” said Pitterson. “We just want to hear, from you, your concerns.”

The audience was silent, save for one boy who raised his hand, and then said he’d decided to take back his question, and so the assembly continued with a presentation from the sheriff’s First Sergeant Ron Messen.

Messen said one thing students need to do is be more aware of their surroundings.

“What’s everybody doing with their phones?” he asked. “Everybody’s looking down.”

“Run, hide, fight”

Messen’s presentation included the first few minutes of a video of a speech by Kristina Anderson, a survivor of the mass shooting in 2007 at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, commonly known as the Virginia Tech shooting.

In it, Anderson describes how she was sitting in the back of a classroom when the shooter chained the door shut and entered the room and began firing. In response, students hid under their flimsy desks.

“That’s the old way of thinking … ,” said Messen, of hiding under a desk. “It’s not a good plan.”

Messen explained that, during a shooting, rational thought disappears and those under attack revert to what they’re trained to do. These students, he said, were the children of parents who lived through “duck and cover” drills that involved hiding under desks in case of nuclear attack during the Cold War.

Instead, Messen went over the “run, hide, fight” technique that the sheriff’s office promotes. He told the students that this could be used in a school as well as public places with many people, such as the mall.

To prepare for the first step — run — Messen suggested that students look for the two closest exits and to keep them in mind in case of an emergency. He also told students to evacuate regardless if others follow.

“You have to look out for number one,” he said. He also asked which students had dogs, and asked them to think about how difficult it is to move their 60-pound dog off their bed and then compare that to trying to move a 200-pound wounded adult.

Messen told students that, when evacuating a building, they should come out with their hands up and their fingers spread.

“We call that jazz hands,” he said, demonstrating. Several students waved their own hands enthusiastically. Messen then said students should cooperate with any police on school grounds, or call 9-1-1 if no one has arrived.

If students cannot run, then the next step is to hide. Messen recommended solid items like filing cabinets as hiding spots. He said students should silence their phones, and to call 9-1-1 but not say anything. Hiding can give a person time to plan for what could be the next step, to fight, he said.

“You go for the legs, and someone tall can go for the eyes,” said Messen, imitating a group of people planning to take down an attacker, explaining that there is strength in numbers.

Students were excited by the prospect, some punching the air or talking among themselves. It was also after this that many questions were asked, particularly about fighting or even killing an active shooter. Messen remarked that fighting is only a last resort, and that students should first try to run and hide.

When asked about arming teachers, Messen said he was personally against it.

“In order to be effective with that weapon, it takes a lot of training,” he said. Even retired police officers would lack the skills because active police officers continue to train. Instead, Messen recommended bringing in resource officers, which is supported by the New York State Sheriffs’ Association.

Mundell agreed with Messen.

“I’m an educator, not a police officer … ,” he said.

The superintendent said he was open to using resource officers but said it would be a question of funding.

Mental health

Mack also spoke to the students, who were more withdrawn when she asked if they had questions about mental health.

“This is harder than talking about fighting, isn’t it?” she asked, in response to the silence.

Mack said that she wants the students to know who to go to if they are not feeling well or if there is someone they suspect isn’t doing well and needs help. She held up a flyer with a list of contacts for the students that she said would be made available to them.

Messen said that one way students can alert authorities is through the sheriff’s office app, which includes a way to submit an incident report.

Mack said that mental-health treatment is no different than treating a physical ailment and, even if such an ailment takes longer to treat, it can be remedied.

“A lot of people think that depression and anxiety is a strength and weakness thing … That’s just a wrong statement,” she said.

Mack later told The Enterprise that she has been working with Mundell to distribute contact information, which includes her own number that she will monitor 24 hours a day.

Mundell said that one of the obstacles that the district hopes to overcome is isolation from mental-health services. The school has partnered with the Albany County Department for Children, Youth and Families to offer a clinic on Mondays, and has arranged with the Board of Cooperative Educational Services to bring in a social worker from the Parsons Child and Family Center. The school currently has two guidance counselors at the secondary school, one at the elementary school, and a district-wide social worker.

Securing buildings

Pitterson said, in response to concerns about the school entrances, that the district has been looking into remediating this. The superintendent later told The Enterprise that a portion of the upcoming capital project will establish secure entry points in both buildings.

Mundell also said the district has a mutual link with the Albany County Sheriff’s Office to the buildings’ cameras, allowing police to obtain visuals in the case of an emergency.

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