GHS students plan walkout, administration says schools are safe

The Enterprise — Melissa Hale-Spencer
The student government is working with the Guilderland school administration, planning a walk-out on March 14, the Guilderland High School student representative, Shashank Shamshabad, tells the school board on Tuesday night.

GUILDERLAND — The Valentine’s Day shooting in Parkland, Florida hung in the air at Tuesday’s school board meeting here.

While students are planning to take part in the National School Walkout Day next Wednesday, the administration is assuring residents that Guilderland schools are safe.

During the superintendent’s budget presentation, which was the centerpiece of the meeting, Marie Wiles said that a survey of students, staff, and community members showed that the top spending priority was for school safety and security.

She also described plans made by the student council for March 14. “At 10 of 10,” Wiles said, Guilderland High School students who choose to will walk out of the building and stand in front of the school. There, 17 balloons will be released, one for each of the people killed in the Parkland shooting. Each victim’s name will be read, followed by a moment of silence.

“We’ve been working with the Guilderland Police Department to make it a safe environment,” said Wiles, noting School Road will be closed during the ceremony. Students who don’t want to participate in the walkout can stay in their classrooms, supervised by teachers.

“We have it structured so it will be minimally disruptive but highly meaningful for the students,” said Wiles.

Asked how many students would be walking out, the high school’s principal, Thomas Lutsic, said, “We have no idea.”

Wiles said the district’s five elementary schools would not be participating. “This is a student-led activity,” she said. “I expect many of our elementary students don’t know what happened in Parkland.”

Wiles added that she doesn’t think the middle school will be involved in the walkout either.

She concluded by praising the student council, which was willing to work with administrators and mindful of different points of view, Wiles said. “This is about school safety and remembering individuals who were victims of a terrible event.”

School safety

Tuesday’s meeting began with two parents telling the board they are concerned about school safety. Erica Smith, who has two children attending Pine Bush Elementary School, noted the district has just one school resource officer, based in the high school, and said she’d like to see a police officer stationed at each school in the district.

“It’s happening at every level,” she said of school violence. She said she’d spoken with the Guilderland Police Department and was told, because of the size of the district, it would take several minutes for police to arrive at a school in the event of a shooting.

Smith believes that, even in “a fiscally tight environment,” it is worth the money to hire more officers and, further, the police officers are the only people with the training to do the job well. “They’re all our children,” she said.

Baswa Shaker Shamshabad, the father of the student representative who spoke to the board about walkout plans, said he travels a lot and he noted security has increased at airports and elsewhere. “We need to have more school security,” he said. “It’s our duty to make our kids safe.”

Later in the meeting, Neil Sanders, the assistant superintendent for business, gave a lengthy explanation of the measures the district has taken in recent years to improve safety.

“While the list of specific physical security measures is extensive, the majority of our efforts focus on building a stronger school community through communication, respect, and responsibility,” Sanders said. “We work hard to foster an environment where all are comfortable to say something if they see or hear something.”

Sanders went over the security systems in place in the district’s seven schools. Each has a single entrance open, and visitors walk through double doors, with a vestibule between, monitored by staff during school hours. When visitors enter, their names are checked against a national sex-offender database and each receives an ID badge to wear.

Guilderland recently installed “intruder cores” on doors so that every occupied space can be secured from the inside. And, there are a total of 256 cameras throughout the district, which can be linked with the Guilderland Police Department or the Albany County Sheriff’s Office so those agencies can see, in real time, what is happening during an emergency.

Monitors work at the middle school and high school to oversee the hallways, parking lots, cafeterias, and other spaces where students congregate.

The school resource officer acts as a liaison to first responders who are already familiar with the district and its building, with each entrance labeled for easy identification. Each Guilderland police car carries a key and swipe card to enter.

Committees meet regularly to plan training and drills. Emergency procedures are available to all staff. And all new employees are fingerprinted for background checks before they are hired. All staff members wear ID badges at school.

“But even with these measures, we know that we can always do more and we are considering further security upgrades as part of an upcoming capital project, Sanders said, concluding, “Together, we will work to ensure that our students are safe and secure while getting a rich, fulfilling education.”

Walking to shelter

While the district has routinely had agreements on places to bus students in case of emergency, the board on Tuesday approved agreements to shelters that students could walk to as well.

Pine Bush Elementary is paired with St. Madeleine Sophie School so if either school is faced with an emergency, students would walk to the other.

Guilderland Elementary students would walk to the nearby YMCA. The Guilderland Town Hall is to shelter Lynnwood Elementary students.  St. Lucy’s Parish Center is to shelter Altamont Elementary students. And the Westmere firehouse is to shelter Westmere Elementary students.

Christ the King School is to serve as an emergency shelter site for Farnsworth Middle School.

At the close of Tuesday’s meeting, board member Allan Simpson said that school violence has become “more the norm that the exception.” He also said, “It’s something we need to have a pulse on at all times.”

Other business

In other business, the school board:

— Heard that a search is underway for a new high school principal. Tom Lutsic, who has been principal for seven years, will retire in June. Forty-six people have applied for the job. The board is expected to appoint a new principal at its April 17 meeting.

The first round of interviews will be on March 12 and 13; the second round will be on March 20. Board President Christine Hayes serves on the interview committee along with teachers, administrators, clerical staff, a parent, and a student;

— Heard from Wiles that she was “terribly sad” to announce that high school math teacher Warren Bollinger died. “He had a heart attack over the break,” she said. “No one knew till Monday.”

He joined the faculty in 1997 and, in addition to teaching math and computer sciences, he coached the girls’ volleyball team for years and was the advisor for the GHS Java Programming Club.

The Bollinger family will host a celebration of his life on Saturday, March 24, from 7 to 9 p.m. at Mallozzi’s at 1930 Curry Road in Rotterdam to which the public is invited. The high school will also hold a memorial with details to be announced;

— Voted, 5 to 4, to adopt a new policy on the entrance age for school. New York State sets 6 as the compulsory age for school; kindergarten is not required. The district had said that students must be 5 by Dec. 1 to attend kindergarten. The new policy adds 60 days of leeway so that parents who feel their children are ready for kindergarten although they don’t turn 5 until Jan. 31 can apply; those younger children will be screened to see if they are ready.

The board, which had debated the matter extensively at a previous meeting, recapped some of the arguments before the vote. “I would like to see it Sept. 1 so all students would be 5 when they enter kindergarten,” said Judy Slack.

“When parents make a determination their child is not ready … the school doesn’t interfere,” said Catherine Barber. “The same should be true of parents who think their children are ready early.”

Barbara Fraterrigo cited the district’s mission statement of helping all children to achieve their highest potential. “These children would have to go through rigorous screening,” she said of the 4-year-olds. “I would like to have all the kids have the opportunity to apply.”

Teresa Gitto said a parent could send a 4-year-old to a private school and then have that child attend first grade at Guilderland the next year. “So we’re making parents pay for private school,” she said.

Demian Singleton, the district’s assistant superintendent for instruction, said that he was speaking for teachers when he said, “There’s a significant difference between a 4-year-old and a 5-year-old.” He also said there was no guarantee a student who had been to a private kindergarten a year early would be admitted to first grade at Guilderland; for any new student, records are evaluated.

Ultimately, Barber, Fraterrigo, Gitto, Simpson, and Seema Rivera voted for the new policy while  Slack, Gloria Towle-Hilt, Timothy Horan, and Christine Hayes voted against it;

— Heard congratulations for high school teacher Andy Maycock and the students who do morning news broadcasts, who reached 100 consecutive broadcasts on Feb. 28;

— Heard praise for Guilderland High School physical education teacher Allison Relyea who was named Secondary Physical Education Teacher of the Year by the Capital Zone of New York State Association of Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance;

— Learned that Farnsworth Middle School is one of 30 Schools to Watch in New York State. It was recently re-designated for the second time as an Essential Elements School to Watch by the New York State Education Department and the Essential Elements Schools to Watch leadership team. Farnsworth was first recognized as a School to Watch in March 2011;

— Watched a video made by Jacqulyn Vandenburgh’s fifth-grade class at Lynnwood Elementary School, which highlighted the work elementary enrichment teachers Victoria Winokur and Ben Rudolph are doing with students in Guilderland’s five elementary schools;

— Heard congratulations for Farnsworth Middle School teacher Jamie Mullins, who applied to and was accepted in the Google Expeditions Beta program and got accepted. Through this beta, Google will loan Farnsworth equipment allowing it to create its own expeditions;

— Agreed to meet with some trustees of the Guilderland Public Library on March 14 for an annual meeting on shared interests. Rivera, Fraterrigo, Barber, and Horan will attend; and

— Rejected bids for transporting homeless students since the service is no longer needed.

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