Students and parents put safe school buildings as top priority

The Enterprise — Michael Koff

Guilderland senior Matthew Creighton stands at the window where monitor Sue Warnken sits, between the high school’s double doors. Here, Warnken gives Creighton a pass to go back to class. When visitors come to school, they pass a photo I.D. through a small drawer to Warnken, who checks them against the national sex-offender registry.

GUILDERLAND — Seventy-eight percent of the 228 Guilderland High School students who responded to a recent budget survey said that “safe and secure buildings” were critically important.

To find out why, school leaders invited the entire student body to come to a focus group after school on March 13.

One student came.

Matthew Creighton, a senior, is a candidate for Eagle Scout (“Fingers crossed,” he told The Enterprise). He is certified in the use of a defibrillator and has taken the active-shooter training offered by the Guilderland Police at town  hall. He is thinking of a career in cybersecurity.

Creighton said at the after-school session that he thought students were influenced not only by the number of school shootings that have taken place throughout the country over the last decade or so, but that the two bomb threats at Guilderland High School in the fall made students feel how easily their sense of safety could be ruptured.

The school received threats, a week apart, at the end of November. Both turned out to be empty.

Both came in by email, with the first saying that a bomb would go off the next day at school, and the second saying that explosives would be brought into the school that day. The first threat arrived in the evening, and police were able to conduct a search while the building was closed. But the second arrived half an hour before school started, and the school went into lockdown as police conducted a search after classes had begun.

The district survey asked community residents, parents, students, and employees to rank how much importance they believed should be given to each of a number of possible budget priorities. The answers most often considered essential were safe, secure buildings; support for struggling students; safe, efficient transportation; social and emotional growth; inclusion; up-to-date technology; smaller class sizes; the arts; and expanded electives.

Students and parents alike included “safe buildings” and “safe buses” among their top priorities.

Staff did not. Their top priorities were support for struggling students; support for social and emotional growth; and smaller class sizes.

Despite the responses received to the survey, the draft budget does not specifically channel any funds toward safety and security. “But,” Superintendent Marie Wiles said, “we are increasing custodial time and maintenance support, which has an indirect effect on safety, because those people are here in the evening and lock down the buildings. Not having our staff spread so thin helps.”

Creighton pointed to the timing of the survey, which came out in spring, a few months after the bomb threats; the order of events may have influenced responses, he said. “I think kids were standing around in the cold for an hour,” Creighton told administrators. “I could see it in the students’ eyes, that this is different from drills.”

When asked later if students were really outside for an hour, Creighton said that students “waited briefly as their bags were checked by administrators.”

Wiles also said she thought those events were upsetting to students, “because we had to search everybody’s backpack before they came in”; also upsetting, she said, was the incident involving shots fired inside Guilderland’s Crossgates Mall, also in November. “A number of our students happened to be there, and everybody knew about it,” she said.

Tasheem Maeweather, 20, of Albany, pleaded not guilty in Albany County Supreme Court in December to firing a gun inside Crossgates Mall on the afternoon of Nov. 12. Many shoppers and workers, particularly those nearby, fled before the mall was locked down and hundreds of police arrived to investigate in a sweep that lasted through the evening. The case is ongoing, and Maeweather, who had been out on parole, is in Albany County’s jail awaiting trial.

The entryways to two Guilderland schools — Lynnwood Elementary and the high school — were recently rebuilt, installing outer and inner locked doors, both equipped with buzzers, with a vestibule in between where parents and visitors need to sign in, said Neil Sanders, assistant superintendent for business. The entryways of the other five schools were reconfigured in a similar way, he said, without the need for building additions.

Software for checking licenses and printing badges was also put in, Sanders said.

Cameras were added, and the school district now has a system in which Guilderland Police would be able, in an emergency, to access security cameras inside the school.

The district estimated, in November 2013, the cost of security improvements at $1,483,000, said Sanders.

Making the school harder for parents or visitors to access, of course, does not address the question of preventing incidents perpetrated by students.

Student Nathan Agneta was charged in the bomb-threat case with a felony: computer trespass with a felony purpose. His case is ongoing in Guilderland Town Court. According to his arrest record, he used a stolen password to gain access to an email account that did not belong to him and without the owner’s permission; he then shared the email address and password with a friend so that the friend could send two bomb threats to the school. The unnamed 15-year-old was charged with making a terroristic threat, which is a felony.

The student who made the threats was 15 at the time and so is not being charged as an adult. His case is being handled in Family Court, his name was not released by police, and the records of his case will be sealed.


Enterprise file photo — Michael Koff
All Guilderland schools now have a double set of doors, which visitors must be buzzed through. Standing in the lobby of Farnsworth Middle School in 2015 for a tour of the new security improvements, school board member Gloria Towle-Hilt, far left, asks questions of Clifford Nooney, the district’s supervisor for building and grounds, while board member Barbara Fraterrigo and Farnsworth Principal Michael Laster look on. The monitor’s window is made of shatterproof and bullet-resistant glass.


Fears of bullying?

Parent Timothy Wilford asked the school board on March 7 if the district could find out what, specifically, Guilderland students are afraid of, as reflected in the survey. He mentioned both terrorism and bullying, and said that, if students are afraid of terrorism, they may not be aware of how much money the district has already spent to improve building security.

A survey done in 2011 found that 39 percent of Farnsworth Middle School students reported being bullied in school or on the way to school; the percentage was a bit lower in high school, at 33 percent. Seventy-two percent of middle schoolers and 68 percent of high schoolers said they had witnessed bullying. Sixteen percent of FMS, and 18 percent of GHS students, said they had bullied others.

The state Education Department’s data on Violent and Disruptive Incident Reporting, or VADIR, shows that in Guilderland schools in the 2015-16 school year, there were six weapons found at Guilderland High School through screening, and one found through screening at Pine Bush Elementary. There was one found at the high school under other circumstances.

“We hoped to get more insight through the forum,” Wiles said. “I would imagine that there are some students who are concerned about other issues, beyond the dramatic types of things that could possibly happen.”

The district may, Wiles said, “do something to follow up — whether it’s another survey, or something else where we can get more information from kids.”

Creighton’s concerns answered

After school on March 13, Creighton talked with assistant principals Amy Hawrylchak, Anne-Marie McManus, and Matt Ward about what the district has already done and what it could possibly still do.

Creighton said he thought the requirement that teachers and visitors wear a badge when in school could be enforced more rigorously. “Not everyone knows everyone else,” he said. Hawrylchak agreed that perhaps a reminder email blast could be sent out.

Creighton said he was glad that the school’s resource officer, Nicholas Ingle, carries a gun. The student said he had seen, in news reports, discussion about whether others, such as armed military veterans, should also be dispatched to help protect schools, but called that “debatable.” Hawrylchak said she didn’t think that had ever been discussed for Guilderland.

Creighton mentioned arrival and dismissal times as a point of relative vulnerability, since doors are open then, “and I guess maybe someone could sneak in,” he said.

The school is basically “closed,” rather than open, said McManus, with doors other than the main entrance locked, and visitors required to stop at the office window before entering, except at arrival and dismissal times.

Any visitors are checked against the national sex-offender registry, said Wiles. The district has occasionally had someone come up as a match, Wiles said. But this doesn’t happen often. Most matches are false, she said.

If the name matches, she said, office staff will first try to ascertain if the physical description also matches. “For instance,” Wiles said, “the database will say that it’s a six-foot-two, dark-haired individual, and the person standing there is much shorter and blond.” In the case of what appears to be an actual match, the employee will call an administrator, who will come down and talk with the individual.  

If the person on the database turns out to be a parent, Wiles said, he or she would be allowed to come in the building, “but we would probably just walk down to the classroom or whatever with the individual, and if the person is not [a parent], we would turn them away,” Wiles said.

The district has sometimes had people come to pick up children, who were not on the list of people authorized to do so. In that case, Wiles said, “We’ve said, ‘We’re really sorry, but we can’t release the child to you,’ and we call the parents, and then go from there.”

It would be impractical, said McManus, to make arrival and dismissal locked as well. It would be hard to funnel students in through a single point of entry in the morning, and hard in the afternoon for students to get to after-school activities if other doors were locked.

Hawrylchak was asked if most school-shooter incidents haven’t been perpetrated by students, rather than outsiders, and whether the district had considered installing metal detectors. She said it had not looked into metal detectors, because the community had not expressed a need for them, and because metal detectors would force students to come in through a single entrance.

Asked why he came to the focus group, Creighton said he thought a free and open-ended talk with administrators on a topic he said was not often discussed would be “interesting and fun.”

Creighton often thinks about what he would do in the event of a school or mall shooting, he said, particularly after he took the Guilderland Police Department’s active-shooter training. He makes a mental note of where exits are when he walks into a public building like a mall or supermarket.

Yes, there have been some shootings at malls, he said, but when at a mall he usually feels “a general trust of humans.”

School shootings, he said, have been “more prevalent.”

Defining a “shooting”

How prevalent school shootings are depends on how you define them. Mass shootings are rare. Incidents involving guns fired at school — such as the child who brings his parents’ gun to school, shows it to another child, and accidentally discharges it — are much more common.

According to the database, Stanford Mass Shootings in America published by the Stanford Geospatial Center and Stanford Libraries, there were a total of 68 mass shootings in the United States in 2016. This database defines a mass shooting in which there are three or more victims — not necessarily fatalities — not including the shooter. It does not include shootings that are identifiably related to gangs, drugs, or organized crime.

Of those 68, one was at a school. It occurred after a fight broke out outside a high school gym in Muskegon Heights, Michigan, following an evening basketball game; three people were injured, as was the shooter.

In 2015, according to the same database, there were a total of 64, and two of those took place at schools: rural Umpqua Community College in Oregon on Oct. 1, with nine dead and seven wounded; and at the Northern Arizona University Campus on Oct. 9, with one dead and three wounded.

A different research group, Everytown for Gun Safety, estimates the number of school shootings much higher, because it includes any time that a firearm discharges a live round inside a school building or on a school campus or grounds. Using that standard, it gives figures of nearly one shooting per week in the United States.

The Everytown data includes incidents such as one in Aug. 2015 in Augusta, Georgia, in which a third-grade boy brought his father’s gun to school and accidentally shot and injured a girl sitting next to him; and one in Nov. 2015 in Lecanto, Florida, when a 15-year-old boy brought his father’s semiautomatic handgun to school and shot himself in the head, critically injuring himself.

District policy

Guilderland’s policy for dealing with an active shooter differs from that recommended by the United States departments of Education, Justice, Health and Human Services, and Homeland Security. After the school shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, then-President Barack Obama asked these departments to come up with guidelines for similar situations.

The joint recommendation of these agencies — with the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Federal Emergency Management Agency — is that school districts implement a “Run, hide, fight” policy that prioritizes, first, fleeing, if possible; then hiding, if fleeing is not possible; and, as a last resort, using any materials at hand to fight decisively.

The Guilderland school district’s policy is silent on fleeing. It calls for locking down and sheltering-in-place.

Wiles said that the district doesn’t have a policy so much as “a set of practices that we rely on right now”; she said they “come from our police department.”

“Some of our administrators have taken the training that rethinks the first course of action,” Wiles said. She continued, “We’re not ready to say, ‘This is our first course of action.’ We’ve thought about whether there are ways we can adjust, more proactive things we can do besides locking down. One problem is that all of our schools are surrounded by playing fields. If you don’t know where a shooter is, you don’t necessarily want people running through open spaces.”

The district’s policy notwithstanding, Creighton has his own plans in mind for what he would do if an active shooter came to school. He would not hunker down in the classroom, he said. He would run.

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