Locked quot Board mulls plan to make school safer

GUILDERLAND — The nine-member school board remains deeply divided over whether the elementary schools in this suburban district should be locked.

Although the board took no action Tuesday night, it spent two hours listening to a report from the five elementary-school principals on security and discussing what action it will take at its next meeting, Nov. 29.

At one point in the discussion, board Vice President Linda Bakst tried to pin down the principals on their views about locking doors.
"I will do my best to institute whatever the board charges me with," said Peter Brabant, Altamont’s principal. When Bakst pressed him further for his own views, he said, "I prefer to put it back in your lap."
Martha Beck, the Pine Bush principal, concurred that it was "difficult for any of us to speak as individuals."
Yet, at the close of the discussion, Superintendent Gregory Aidala said he would come up with an "action item" for the board to vote on at its next meeting based on "input from the elementary-school principals."
He told the board, "I can’t tell you what it is."
Aidala had said, earlier in the meeting, "When we started the school year, the board allocated $60,000 to improve security at the elementary schools."

A district subcommittee had studied school security and recommended monitors be posted at elementary schools to buzz in visitors through locked doors. The board, in July, had compromised on hiring just the monitors — after some expressed concern it would change the culture of the Guilderland schools — and planned to evaluate response before deciding on locking the doors.
"We’re talking about the most judicious use of a limited resource," said Aidala Tuesday night.

Aidala explained that one option would be to pay for surveillance cameras in the lobbies of Pine Bush, Guilderland, and Altamont elementary schools for a cost of $11,500. Lynnwood and Westmere elementary schools already have cameras, he said. Then, to pay for locked doors that would allow visitors to be buzzed in, would cost about $10,000 for all five schools, meaning the total for the two options would cost $21,000 to $22,000.

Aidala’s statements followed a discussion where board members expressed widely divergent views.
Board member John Dornbush recommended hiring an expert "to look at hard data about risk and what the threats really are to our students."
Board member Barbara Fraterrigo responded that, with the work done by the subcommittee, by the principals, and by the assistant superintendents for instruction and business, "Just about all the literature out there was examined."
She said the expert State Trooper that the subcommittee consulted "doesn’t charge anything." Fraterrigo concluded, "Considering our limited finances...I think we have all the data we need...We could have five experts at two-thousand bucks a whack and eat up half your money...We have to put up or shut up."

Board member Richard Weisz suggested grant money could pay for consultants. He said he liked the idea of a consultant evaluating what the district is doing and how it could do better.
The most telling comment he heard, said Weisz, was, "I lock my front door."
"It’s not a static thing," said board President Gene Danese. "We’d consider this the beginning, so we’d start with $21,000," he said referring to the cost of buzzed-in locking systems and surveillance cameras for the elementary schools.

Neil Sanders, assistant superintendent for business, estimated it would take three months to complete the process of installing the locked-door systems.

Board member Thomas Nachod, who in July had favored hiring the monitors and installing the locks, pointed out Tuesday that one of the reasons for the delay was to get input from building cabinets and PTA’s at the elementary schools.
"We were concerned about cultural issues; are we beyond that"" he asked the principals.
"I don’t think we are," responded Dianne Walshhampton, principal of Guilderland Elementary School, citing the low return rate of surveys sent home with children to their parents.
Board member Peter Golden, who had vociferously supported installing the locks at his first board meeting, in July, said Tuesday that he saw the survey return rate of 7 to 13 percent, higher than the standard direct-mail response of 3 to 5 percent as "cause for cheer."

Three board members were direct in stating their opposition to locked doors.
"I cannot support any proposal with locked doors," said board member Colleen O’Connell. "I do not think it is appropriate for the doors of a public school to be locked."

Bakst pointed out that, while Guilderland’s middle school and high school have front-door monitors, they do not lock their front doors.
"Locking doors — I see that as very problematic," said Bakst. "That’s not the route we should go."
"Personally," said board member Cathy Barber, "I’m still back at: Why do we think our kids are not safe at school""

She maintained that elementary-school students were constantly supervised by staff.
She also said, "I don’t think that, just because the money is allocated, it has to be spent."
And Barber maintained, "I don’t necessarily agree there’s as much danger as people suggest."
"This is precisely why I wanted to get research," said Dornbush. He said what the board had heard from the subcommittee, from parents, and from the principals was opinion.
"What we’re missing is real research," said Dornbush.
Aidala concluded the discussion by stating he wouldn’t hesitate to have his own children, now grown, attend Guilderland schools. "Our schools are safe places," he said.

Controversial history

The security plan was developed by an advisory subcommittee of the district’s Safe and Drug-Free Schools Committee. The advisory committee had been formed after Frank Falvo, the parent of two Pine Bush Elementary students, had told the board at a budget session over a year ago, last October, that more school security was needed. He co-chaired the committee.

The matter became a budget issue in April when the board had a lengthy and heated debate before adopting a $7.6 million spending plan that was ultimately passed by voters.

Members of the subcommittee made a last-minute request in April to fund front-door monitors at the elementary schools; the district’s middle school and high school already have such monitors.

In June, the subcommittee presented its plan to hire five part-time security monitors for the five elementary schools at an estimated cost of $32,500, and to install magnetic locks with entry buzzers at the main entrance of each school, at an estimated cost of $10,000.

Additionally, the group wanted a pass-key entry-access system installed at three of the elementary schools with the most outside use — Guilderland, Pine Bush, and Westmere — at an estimated cost of $16,000.
Several board members objected strenuously to what one termed "the new piece" of locking the doors. After a heated discussion, a compromise was reached. The board decided, in a split vote, to hire just the part-time monitors and then, after elementary-school parents were informed of the options, reevaluate in October or November.

The five principals, on Tuesday, presented a report, as the board had requested.

Public comment

Tuesday’s session began with public comment that captured the dichotomy of views on school security.
Jeanna Cornetti, an educator and Guilderland resident, told the board, "It’s a huge injustice to spend such a large sum of money on a statistically insignificant risk."

She clapped later in the meeting when Dornbush said that research, rather than opinion, was needed.
The overwhelming majority of school violence, Cornetti told the board, is student generated. "The stats speak for themselves," she said.

She went on to say that she had read the subcommittee’s 30-plus page report but that more research was needed and that’s where funds should be spent.
"Guilderland...needs to maintain a climate of education and not a climate of fear," she said.

Frank Falvo spoke next, chiding the board that, in over a year, the district does still not have full compliance with its visitors’ policy.

Locked doors with monitors are the best way to protect the children, he said.

He mentioned recent local incidents — an attempted abduction at Saratoga Springs and an out-of-school encounter in the Pine Bush area.

Pine Bush Principal Martha Beck described the incident for The Enterprise yesterday. She said that, on Sept. 28, after school, she got a call from the Guilderland Police Department describing an incident from the Saturday before. Two third-grade girls, Pine Bush students, had been walking along Empire Avenue, when a man with gray hair, driving a car, talked to them and reached out to them, she said.
"They were frightened and ran to a house for help," Beck said. "Those people called the police."
She went on, "That he had gray hair was the only description we got...We never heard anymore afterward from the police."

Beck conferred with the school superintendent and decided to write a note to be sent home to the parents of Pine Bush students, she said.
"We always take the conservative route," Beck said. "If we know something, we share it. Fortunately, we haven’t had anything similar."
On Tuesday night, Falvo went on to say that the board’s stance that there is no problem "implies my child or someone else’s child must be harmed" for the board to take action.
Later in the meeting, referring to the Saratoga incident, Weisz said, "There are people taking care to protect our children at the conclusion of practices." The Saratoga incident occurred after a sports practice.

Carolyn Kelly, another subcommittee member, told the board that the district never applied for grant money from the federal Department of Education. In 2005, two western New York school districts, similar to Guilderland, were awarded about $100,000 each for safety improvements, she said.
She also said that, this summer, the Voorheesville school district installed locks at its elementary school. "There was no discussion...Parents are very happy," she said. (See related story.)
Later in the meeting, Sanders said that the district had looked into applying for federal funds. "BOCES recommended we partner with another school and do a larger application," he said.
He said the federal funds were "really about crisis management and response...building a protocol larger than your school and merging into the community."

Some money can be spent on equipment, he said, but the emphasis is on planning and training, and the district would like to be part of a county-wide initiative.

Fraterrigo countered that, if Guilderland applied independently, it could get more money.

In a second, rarely-used public-comment period near the end of the long meeting, W. Keith Kizer, a Guilderland parent who endorses locked school doors, spoke. He had applauded Falvo’s and Kelly’s earlier comments.
Kizer said there are a number of parents around in schools without any function who "need to be controlled."

He said the threat to security is underestimated from, for example, parents who are disgruntled with teachers.
He also asked, "What’s the divorce rate these days"" and estimated 25 percent. "How many schoolchildren are coming out of divorced families"...Let me tell you," he said, "these are traumatized people."

Principals’ report
Beck began the principals’ presentation by conceding there "certainly have been differences of opinion" on school security. But, she asserted, "The one thing that is really true and steadfast...Every single one of us hold precious and valuable the safety of children in our schools."

Last fall, she said, the Safe Schools subcommittee was given the charge of identifying, researching, and recommending security improvements, focusing on buildings. The committee was to look at a controlled, single point of entry to schools while keeping a welcoming atmosphere, Beck said.

School monitors were hired in August for 3.75 hours a day in each of the five elementary schools, at a cost of $6,500 per school, she reported. They each received two-and-a-half hours of training, and their role is to ensure visitors sign in and sign out of school.
Monitors check identification, and make sure visitors have "legitimate school business," Beck said; they hand out badges for visitors to wear, collecting them when they leave.

Monitors alert the nearby school office if a visitor doesn’t comply — which has been rare, Beck said — and they meet regularly with the school principal to solve concerns.
"We’ve been very pleased," Beck said. "They’re conscientious, polite, good problem-solvers and thinkers."

The monitors keep track of the flow of visitors, Beck said, and perform other tasks in otherwise idle moments, such as sorting backpack mail.
Beck described a few "little bumps in the road" such as visitors’ badges not being returned and long lines at peak times, particularly at dismissal.
"We do have a better handle on who is in the building," said Beck. Before, visitors were to sign in at the school office and wear stick-on badges, under the supervision of secretaries who were often busy with other tasks.
Also, Beck said, there is now a "smoother flow" as parents who might be bringing in a forgotten lunch or spelling book no longer interrupt classes to make deliveries.

Walshhampton went over data on visitors to the five schools for the months of September and October. Altamont, the smallest school, had the fewest visitors — 1,253. Westmere, the largest, had the most visitors — 3,164. Schools that have rooms used for other programs, such as BOCES, early childhood programs, or day-care for kindergartners, tend to have more visitors, said Walshhampton.

Altamont averaged 34 visits daily; Lynnwood, 50; Guilderland, 73; Pine Bush, 81; and Westmere, 85. The highest number of visitors in one day was 298 at Pine Bush on Halloween.

Walshhampton said feedback was obtained at PTA discussions, building-cabinet meetings, and through a parent survey.
"We tried to get a sense — we tried pretty hard — of how do our parents feel about this," she said. "How do you find that line where you have a safe building and a welcoming building""
The "open-ended" questionnaire, sent home with children, asked parents for their "comments, concerns, and suggestions" on the new monitoring system, Walshhampton said, and had a similar open-ended question on creating a buzz-in system.

Thirty to forty questionnaires were returned at each school, for a total of 175. In every building, more were in favor of the monitors than opposed — ranging from a 40.6 approval rating at Westmere (where that same percentage was undecided and the rest, 18.8 percent, were not in favor) to a 75-percent approval at Guilderland.
Walshhampton read a sampling of comments on the monitors and concluded by asking, "Did we get a mandate either way"...That’s up for the board to decide...We’re going to have to work it out to find a balance" the community will accept.

Beck then went over the responses to the proposal for a locked front door with a buzz-in system.

She pointed out the results may be skewed because the wrong figures for cost were given and, she said later, when Golden asked, that parents answering the survey hadn’t been told money for the locks was already allocated by the board.

Respondents at two of the schools favored the locked-door system — Guilderland at 41.9 percent and Pine Bush at 52.5 percent. Respondents at two other schools opposed the system — Altamont at 54 percent and Lynnwood at 65 percent. The fifth school, Westmere, was evenly divided — 40.6 percent for the system, 40.6 percent against, and 18.8 percent undecided.

Lynnwood had far more respondents, said Principal James Dillon, because it included boxes to check yes or no. Fraterrigo asserted that the response at Lynnwood may have been more negative because of a building cabinet report on the matter.

Beck read typical comments on both sides of the issue.
One in support of the locked doors said, "The concerns I have about my children's safety at school are the same that I have at home: How much security is needed to protect them while not making them fearful by overprotecting" I’m not sure I have answers to that yet, but I do know that a first line of defense for home security is to lock your doors."
A comment in opposition said, "There should be enough staff members to look out for any unusual visitors...I feel my child is in a safe environment and would like to see the money used for educational purposes."
Beck concluded, "We got some very thoughtful answers here as parents search for the right balance."

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