Voorheesville tables vote on school resource officer

   Enterprise file photo — H. Rose Schneider
First Sergeant Ron Messen, who leads a training program for the Albany County Sheriff’s Office on dealing with active shooters, talks in March with Berne-Knox-Westerlo students. In May, the BKW School Board unanimously agreed to hire a school resource officer for the upcoming school year. At its July meeting, the Voorheesville School Board put off a vote on hiring a school resource officer for September.

VOORHEESVILLE – In the wake of February’s school shooting in Parkland, Florida, some local school districts rushed to signed up school resource officers for September. Voorheesville’s approach has been more deliberate and inclusive.

The district hosted a forum on June 26 so that community members could ask questions and voice concerns. Then, the school board, at its July monthly meeting, tabled a vote on hiring a school resource officer for the upcoming school year, citing more input from the community would be needed to make a decision.

On Tuesday, July 31, at 7 p.m., in the performing arts center, another forum will be held to discuss the proposal.  

Social media postings on June 2 and 3 by a middle-school student prompted the Voorheesville School District to ask the Albany County Sheriff for an increased police presence at its schools. This, in turn, led the sheriff’s office to post a deputy full-time, serving both the elementary and secondary schools, until June 22, the last day of school. At the time, Superintendent Brian Hunt told The Enterprise that Voorheesville was considering a school resource officer, but first, the district had to hold a public forum.

“I think, we have to think about the entire issue of creating a safe and supporting learning environment for students, and, so, maybe a school resource officer is a piece of that, but, I think, we also have to think about what else is a part of that,” said Trustee Diana Straut at the July 11 meeting.

That the discussion should be about students’ physical safety as well as their psychological safety, Straut said, and there are limitations to what can be realistically expected of an officer’s ability to counsel students. “They are not trained mental-health counselors,” she said.

“I feel like that there is a piece of this – that psychological-safety piece – that isn’t necessarily addressed by a school resource officer,” Straut said.

If she thought for a moment that a school resource officer were the answer to keeping students safe, she would find the money for it somewhere. “I would do whatever I had to do,” she said. But a school resource officer is not the only thing that is needed to keep students safe, she said. “I know it’s not the only thing we need to keep our students safe.”

Trustee Jeannie McDonnell said she had recently read the job description for the Voorheesville dean of students, and it sounded a lot like a school resource officer.

Then she pointed out the single most glaring difference – a school resource officer carries a gun.

McDonnell’s concern is: “What else would a school resource officer do that we aren’t doing right now?” She said that the district has already done a good job with safety measures it’s taken like security cameras and door locks.

Defining SRO duties

Trustee Cynthia Monaghan, who was unanimously re-elected vice president earlier in the evening, echoed each of the trustees’ concern about safety, and said that she sees value in having a school resource officer but wondered if it could be in a part-time capacity.

She said that it was not clear what a school resource officer would do during the day while the kids are in class.

According to research, which is posted on the district’s website, school resource officers are a new type of public servant – “a hybrid educational, correctional, and law enforcement officer.”

Their activities may be placed into three general categories:

– Safety expert and law enforcer: “SROs can act as safety experts and law enforcers by assuming primary responsibility for handling calls for service from the school, making arrests, issuing citations on campus, taking actions against unauthorized persons on school property, and responding to off-campus criminal activities that involve students.

“SROs also serve as first responders in the event of critical incidents at the school. SROs can help to solve problems that are not necessarily crimes (e.g., bullying or disorderly behavior) but that can contribute to criminal incidents”;

– Problem solver and liaison to community resources: “SROs can include developing and expanding crime prevention efforts and community justice initiatives for students”; and

– Educator: “SROs can also present courses on topics related to policing or responsible citizenship for students, faculty, and parents.”

The report, from the Congressional Research Service, an agency with the Library of Congress that does nonpartisan research for Congress, says that school resource officers also: “Educate likely school-age victims in crime prevention and safety; develop or expand community justice initiatives for students; train students in conflict resolution, restorative justice, and crime awareness; assist in the identification of physical changes in the environment that may reduce crime in or around the school; and assist in developing school policy that addresses crime and to recommend procedural changes.”

In addition, the report says, schools with officers “were more likely to work with law enforcement to create an emergency plan agreement; develop a written plan to deal with shootings, large scale fights, hostages, and bomb threats; and conduct risk assessments of the security of school buildings or grounds.”

Mixed results

However, in spite of the popularity of officers in schools, the report notes, there are few studies that have “reliably evaluated their effectiveness of SRO programs.”

The report says studies that have sought to measure actual safety outcomes have had mixed results. Typically, the report says, “Studies that report positive results from SRO programs rely on participants’ perceptions of the effectiveness of the program rather than on objective evidence.”

The report from the Congressional Resource Service cites a separate study that says that, while school resource officers might be an important part of an overall safety plan, they should not be the only part. “In some instances, school safety plans might not require the deployment of an SRO,” the study says.

Trustee Robert Samson brought up funding the position. The district will be able to pay $57,000 for an officer for the upcoming school year because two staff members announced they would retire after the budget had been set.

Samson pointed out that, when Assemblywoman Patricia Fahy briefed the board at its February meeting, she was not optimistic about future funding at the state level.

Samson said that more time was needed to make a decision because “the program has been created on the fly,” and “was brought to the board relatively recently, outside of the budget process.”

Samson also brought up the possibility of a part-time officer, but pointed out that wouldn’t be possible because a part-time officer would be available to the district two days a week for eight hours a day. The Albany County Sheriff’s Office, which is supplying school resource officers to Ravena and Berne-Knox-Westerlo, would not able to split the shift, for instance, have the officer on site from 7 a.m. to 10 a.m., and then again at the end of the day.

Trustee Michael Canfora said that he wanted more input from the school community. He said that the response at the June 26 forum had been mixed, and that he needs more input than 100 people at the forum to make a decision that he considers one the biggest in his time on the board.

President Doreen Saia, who was unanimously re-elected to her position at the reorganizational meeting earlier in the evening, proposed creating a survey because, she said, it could reach more people, and there might be a better chance that the responses could be more honest because people won’t have to offer their opinion in public.

The board voted unanimously to table the vote. A second forum on having a school resource officer will be held on Tuesday, July 31, at 7 p.m., in the performing arts center.

Enforcing policy

At the recent annual board retreat, the board determined that it wants to take a step back and do a self-evaluation, Saia said.

At some point in the year each of the board members had voiced a similar concern: “More and more that the board had less and less time at its meetings to do its primary business,” Saia said. Personnel and policy matters were “getting shoved to the tail end of meetings,” and rushed through, which the board wanted to eliminate, Saia said.

To do so, Saia said, the board will enforce its already-on-the-books policy that dictates rules for public participation at school board meetings. “We cannot have comment about individual district employees, individual students, or individual matters,” Saia said. “We have a superintendent, who to the best of my knowledge, has made himself available to the public when asked to schedule an appointment to have discussions. That is the correct route to take and I am going to enforce that this year, we just have to.”

Then Richard Reilly, the father of a player on the girls’ varsity basketball team as well as the attorney for the village of Voorheesville, stepped to the microphone and immediately disregarded Saia’s directive about not discussing specific people. Reilly wanted to discuss the topic that is the basis for the policy’s enforcement: Robert Baron.

In the past eight months, some meetings had became uncomfortable affairs for the board as a few residents questioned the grounds of Baron’s resignation as coach of the girls’ varsity basketball team and whether the district is covered against the lawsuit that Baron has filed.

Reilly and another parent, Michael Barringer, asked the board to hold off reappointing Andrew Karins as head coach of the girls’ varsity basketball team.

“I want to be careful in terms of how I address the issue, I would simply urge the board to defer action on the girls’ varsity basketball coaching position. We have met privately with board members to discuss certain issues in the past; we continue to have concerns,” Reilly said before Saia cut him off.

“Rich, this is really the kind of thing we are talking about, these kind of comments really need to be had in private in Brian’s office,” Saia said, referring to Superintendent Hunt.  

“I certainly don’t want to run afoul of that,” Reilly said. “I will say, as a parent, and not somebody who is very often at these meetings and have never spoken before, I’ve had discussions with board members about concerns that I’ve expressed in communications that I have made in the past and they – the board members – didn’t really seem up to speed.

“So while I absolutely want to respect that process, I think the process is only as good as the mechanism for filtering that information back up to board members,” Reilly said, before asking that the board defer action on the position.

Later in the meeting, Karins was re-appointed as head coach of the girls’ varsity basketball team.

Other business

In other business, the board:

–  Approved the opening of the new playground at Voorheesville Elementary School for play;

–  Added modified girls’ lacrosse as a sport for next year; and

–  Authorized Hunt to sign a memorandum of understanding with the Albany County Sheriff's office for an emergency communication system for the district.

The MOU says that there will be three mounted units in the high school, two mounted units each in the middle school and elementary school as well as two mobile radios each in the high school and middle school, and three in the elementary school.

Also, 32 mobile radios will be assigned to school buses.

More New Scotland News

The Altamont Enterprise is focused on hyper-local, high-quality journalism. We produce free election guides, curate readers' opinion pieces, and engage with important local issues. Subscriptions open full access to our work and make it possible.