After spare forum, Voorheesville seeks more input hiring sheriff’s deputy

VOORHEESVILLE – The Voorheesville School Board last month tabled a vote on hiring a sheriff’s deputy for the upcoming school year, citing more community input was needed to make a decision, but a sparsely attended forum on the matter Tuesday night had the board’s district safety committee wondering how, in the dog days of summer, it can reach more people.

Had more people come, they would have heard school staff, drawing from prior and present experience with school resource officers, unanimous in its praise of the program as well as clarity about the officer’s specific role in the schools.

This understanding is important, said James Coffin, a school board and safety committee member, “because it could make the difference about how parents feel about the whole situation.”

At its July 11 meeting, after an initial forum on hiring a school resource officer, one board member said psychological safety is as important as physical safety and officers are not trained mental-health counselors. Voorheesville has two deans, another board member had noted, and the officer’s duties seemed similar to a dean’s with the difference that the deputy would have a gun.

Voorheesville was initially to be one of three districts that would use a sheriff’s deputy for the next school year. The other two — Berne-Knox-Westerlo and Ravena-Coeymans-Selkirk — have gone ahead with the plan.

Voorheesville’s district safety committee is made up of school board members, administrators, support staff, teachers, and a student representative.

Some committee members wanted to clarify the specific disciplinary and investigatory role of the school resource officer, saying that the draft agreement between the district and the Albany County Sheriff's Office is not entirely clear about that.

Jeffrey Vivenzio, the elementary school’s principal and a committee member, gave an example to help clarify the role. He said that he would not ask a school resource officer to do locker checks; that’s his job. And, if he did find something illicit, he said, he may tell the officer what he’d found, but not from whom it was found.

Jennifer Drautz, the middle school’s principal as well as a committee member, said that, in other districts she’s worked in, when she did locker sweeps and found a weapon or drugs, she would call the police and ask them to come take the contraband, “and that’s it.”

Robert Samson, a school board and committee member, asked Drautz if she would lose discretion if the district hired a school resource officer.

“No, absolutely not,” she answered.

Samson’s concern was that, if a school resource officer had found something illicit, then the consequences for a student could be different than if a school administrator had found it.

“We won’t act independently without guidance from the administration,” Lee Bormann, of the Albany County Sheriff’s Office, told Samson, “unless it’s a life and safety issue.”

Superintendent Brian Hunt said that it was important to understand that the district would not involve the school resource officer in school disciplinary matters. “That is explicitly stated in the agreement,” he said.

“The school resource officer will not make an arrest on school property unless there is an immediate threat to safety,” Hunt added.

Hunt said that the district can make it clear in the agreement that the school resource officer cannot act independently on school grounds without guidance from school administration.

Positive experiences

Drautz said that Voorheesville is the fourth district she’s worked in; some had school resource officers and others didn’t. She said something that gets lost when a school doesn’t have an officer “is the presence impact, of just having that positive influence there.” Having a school resource officer, she said, gets kids to feel comfortable seeing someone in uniform so that it doesn’t always mean something negative.

Coffin asked Drautz how long it took “for people to get comfortable, across-the-board, to get comfortable with the new environment.”

She answered that the district had a school resource officer when she started, but said it was felt it when he was gone. “I can honestly say, there is something to be said for presence; arrival and dismissal alone.”

Drautz said that having a school resource officer at Voorheesville for the last couple of weeks of school had been invaluable. Social media postings on June 2 and 3 by a middle-school student had prompted the district to ask the sheriff’s office 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.

Vivenzio, in agreement with Drautz, said that for the last few weeks of school, Deputy Danielle Vanderveer “did a fantastic job of being visible.”  Vivenzio said she was at the elementary school’s field day, numerous assemblies, kindergarten graduation, and dismissal and arrival periods.

The principal said that he made a point to introduce Vanderveer to parents and that she made the point to reach out and have conversations with them. Vivenzio felt like a lot of parents felt comfortable with her presence at the school, but did he not want to speak for them.

Coffin wanted to know from Drautz and Vivenzio how their staffs handled the school resource officer. “Were there any difficulties?” he asked.

Drautz told him there were no problems and said people told her, “This is kind of nice.” But no one told her that a school resource officer was not needed.

Heather Garvey, the new dean of students, said, from a high school perspective, she did not hear one teacher who wasn’t happy that the school resource officer was there. She said that it made the teachers feel a little more secure because “here at Voorheesville, teachers are the first line of defense and that’s very hard for a lot of us. And knowing that a school resource officer was there put a lot of staff at ease”

She said that with high school students, often their only contact with police is when they bring in the drug-sniffing dogs. “For the kids at the high school to have a more positive relationship with police is fantastic,” she said.

Cynthia Monaghan, a board of education and safety committee member, said that she found it very helpful to hear that the staff at both schools was on board with the school resource officer. “What’s important now is to get the survey out to the district,” she said.

Surveys and outreach

Normally, district safety meetings are not public, said Hunt, because of the sensitive security-based topics that are discussed, but Tuesday night’s topic could be discussed in public.

The board of education asked that a survey be prepared about the school resource officer program to be sent out to the community. Hunt asked if anyone on the committee had any specific questions he or she would like included.

Monaghan wanted to broaden the survey to ask what community members feel makes the district safe and what they feel is missing. She also highlighted the district’s current mental-health resources and wanted to include a question about that to make sure people are aware of what is offered.

Hunt asked, “Should we include a question in the survey that says, ‘Are you in favor of the district having a school resource officer?’”

Samson said the question was important but wasn’t sure if it should be a single question or one that is spread across multiple questions. “It may not be as simple as people being in favor or not in favor of a school resource officer,” he said. “Maybe they have specific concerns one way or the other.” Rather than making it a binary choice, he said, questions need to be more nuanced.

Hunt responded by saying that questions could ask if someone has a  “specific concern” about school resource officers or if they see a “specific advantage” to having one.

“Like, a school resource officer’s presence on campus would make me feel …” Samson replied.

Coffin’s concern was that enough people from the community have input. “There has to be more people involved in this,” he said, “especially people with children.” He said that the fewer than 20 people in the auditorium were not enough of a segment of the population to give a good response, adding that he was struggling with how to get the message out.

“I want to see people involved in this,” he said.

Monaghan asked if the survey could be sent through the district’s email-alert system, and Samson responded, “The difficulty could be, that it’s summertime and a lot of people might be unavailable.”

From the audience, Doug Miller said that it’s not just people who have kids in the school that may want to weigh in. “It’s grandparents in the community who have grandchildren in the school, people without children who pay taxes to the district,” he said, noting that the email-alert system limits the ability of the district to reach those people.

It was then suggested to make contact with civic and community groups to get the message out. Later in the meeting, the committee was asked about sending the survey to students. Hunt replied that might be difficult because school wasn’t in session, and, even if the surveys were sent, he was not sure how many students check their school email.

An audience member stood up and said that, if it’s not about money or the district’s budget, people won’t pay attention. If the committee wanted to enlist the public, she said, it has to be done by word-of-mouth. The elderly needed to be engaged, she said, stating “They have a time to tell the working folk what is going on.”

The discussion then turned to grassroots outreach, like hanging flyers at Hannaford, Stewart’s Shops, the library, and the post office.

An audience member asked, since the district still hadn’t come up with a survey, how likely would it be that there is a resource officer in Voorheesville on the first day of school. Hunt said that a survey could go out by the end of the week, and that another week was needed for responses, then the district is “at the mercy of the school board meeting schedule,” which has been adjusted; the next meeting will take place on Aug. 16.

“There is always the possibility of holding a special meeting,” Hunt said, to approve a school resource officer.

Bormann told Hunt that a last-minute approval by the board could put the sheriff's department on the spot, because the county attorney would need time to review any contract.


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