GCSD debates: Will a second SRO quell violence?

— Still frame from presentation at Nov. 15 Guilderland School Board meeting

School Resource Officer Sean Ralston is shown here in a video portraying what he does at Guilderland High School.

GUILDERLAND — After hearing on Nov. 15 from a dozen students and parents upset over what they say are unsafe behaviors at Guilderland High School, the school board had a heated discussion on hiring a second school resource officer.

The board will revisit the proposal at its Dec. 6 meeting after students have been surveyed and information has been gathered on the possibility of federal funding for the program.

The meeting started with Rachel Reilly reading a stunning statement from Sayed Murad, the father of a Guilderland student, saying, “My son Easa Sayed was assaulted in Guilderland High School for no reason followed by another attack followed by intimidating text messages and death threats ... My family is scared if, what if they attack our house?”

Sayed Murad said he had left Afghanistan because his family was in danger since he had worked as a translator for the United States Army. In 2012, the family escaped to India, he said, where they were mocked, humiliated, and stoned because they were Christians, and in 2014, the family came to the United States.

“I am in a condition now where I think of where to go from here, where to hide and where to run,” he wrote in words read by Reilly. “The Guilderland High School is now trying to somehow remove my son from school because they are unable to control the situation.” He asked the school district, “How many students will you send home to ease yourself?”

Guilderland Superintendent Marie Wiles told The Enterprise this week that, while she could not speak about any individual student, “Students have the right to come to school and we do our very best when they’re here to keep everyone safe.”

She also said the high school works hard to mitigate any harm that might occur during times of the day — such as at lunch in the cafeteria or when students pass to classes in the hallways — when there is no direct adult supervision.

Guilderland junior Rachael Dwyer spoke of teachers fearing their students. “The actions of many have become safety hazards and at many times illegal but people are too afraid to say anything out of fear,” she told the board.

Dwyer described walking into a school bathroom last week and seeing a circle of girls vaping with no fear of getting caught “and they had the nerve to judge me,” she said.

Another Guilderland student, Madalena Reilly, said, “Fights are breaking out very frequently …. It becomes a serious problem when students’ education is stunted because of violence.” She went on to describe “a beatdown taking place at lunch and kids start pointing cameras and laughing.”

“I see the violence here every day,” said junior Kaleigh Green, adding that the answer to violence is “assertive power and actual consequences.”

She also said that it was confusing last week when the school accidentally went into lockdown briefly rather than the intended shelter-in-place to clear the halls for a medical emergency. “We weren’t briefed on what each of the different beeping sounds mean,” she said.

Another student said she was shaking in fear because of the brief lockdown.

Kaleigh Green had spoken to the school board six months ago, advocating for a later start time at the high school, something the district had unsuccessfully tried before reverting to pre-pandemic start times. On Nov. 15, Green said there was a “direct correlation” between lack of sleep and violence in schools.

Her father, Thomas Green, then quoted from an article, “Psychological distress mediates the connection between sleep deprivation and physical fighting in adolescents,” published in the February 2022 volume of Aggressive Behavior that describes links between sleep deprivation and aggressive behavior.

Junior Brooke Snyder said, “This year is very different than others for me …. I cannot confidently say I feel safe to be in school. I have dealt with personal bullying and harassment …. I’m scared to walk in the hallways because of the continuous fights among the students.”

Junior Elizabeth Shafer described arriving at school late one day after a doctor’s appointment and being unable to enter because of a protest going on. “I was yelled at and verbally harassed by people attending the protest that I’m normally friendly with,” she said. “I was disgusted by the chaos that I was witnessing and nothing being done about it. I’m concerned about me and my peers’ education because it is affecting what we have worked so hard for … getting into college.”

The school board president, Seema Rivera, read three letters on the subject that had been submitted to the board. The first, from Katie Len, made similar points to the in-person speakers in calling for a second school resource officer at Guilderland while the other two letters argued against another SRO.

Parent Sara Kate Kanter wrote, “There is not a single school day that goes by that I don’t wonder if it’s the last time I’ll see my children, when putting them on the bus or dropping them off at school in the morning.”

But she also cited a National Education Association post from earlier this year, “Making Schools Safe and Just,” that said the numbers of SROs in schools have grown dramatically, driven by school shootings and a sense that students are too unruly. In 1975, only 1 percent of U.S. schools reported having SROs, but that number rose to about 36 percent by 2004, and to 58 percent by 2018, including 72 percent of high schools. The increase was largely attributed to federal funding.

“Yet research shows that SROs do little to reduce on-campus violence or mass shootings, and their presence is often damaging to students of color and students with disabilities,” the article said. “Having SROs in schools can actually create higher rates of behavioral incidents and spikes in suspensions, expulsions, and arrests.” 

Similarly, Tony Rivera wrote, providing a list of links to research, “My primary concern is that not all members of the community feel reassured at the sight of an SRO …What these studies have demonstrated is that marginalized students experience higher levels of anxiety, stress and feel less safe when SROs are present. Additionally, in schools with SROs, students of color are more likely to be expelled, suspended or arrested.”

Another SRO, he wrote, would not solve bigger, systemic issues and he asserted that the money would be better spent “adding another school counselor, teacher, teacher’s aide or a coach that would directly benefit students, reduce a class size, or offer additional resources for students.”

 

SRO overview

Wiles gave a report on Guilderland’s SRO program based on work done by a subcommittee of a district-wide safety committee.

The mission of the program is to “promote school safety by building a positive school climate in which everyone feels safe and students are supported to succeed,” Wiles said, and also to seek to “reduce violent crime committed by and against youth in our community.”

“As I listened to the impassioned comments from everyone today and the kind of tone that I’ve heard so much in the last days, these words resonate,” said Wiles of the SRO mission and how it is carried out.

The program in Guilderland was started in 1999 with one officer and was expanded in 2009 to include two officers — one stationed at the high school with another at the middle school. The district also has five elementary schools.

In 2012, because of recession-caused budget cuts, the program was cut back to one officer at the high school.

In March, the Guilderland School Board approved its first contract for a school resource officer at which time Wiles said the goal “is more about prevention and building relationships,” rather than making arrests.

At the Nov. 15 meeting, Wiles stressed that, while SROs are responsible for the majority of law-enforcement activities occurring at the school during school hours, the SRO is not involved with general school discipline. A determination of whether an activity rises to the level of involving law enforcement is made in consultation with school officials, she said, and alternatives to arrest should be used whenever possible.

Three months ago, Guilderland’s police chief, Daniel McNally, offered to have an officer placed in the schools at no cost to the district for the remainder of the school year. After that, the district would be responsible for paying $56,000 annually to cover the officer’s salary for the part of the year that school is open.

Farnsworth Middle School Principal Michael Laster said, “We have seen an uptick in our disruptive behaviors. We have seen an uptick in our instances of physical fights.”

He also said, “My access to the SRO is a reactive access.” He said he calls on the SRO only after “something happens.”

Laster also noted that, if a SRO were stationed in the middle school, the officer would be closer to the Westmere and Guilderland elementary schools than an officer in the high school.

Sean Ralston, the current Guilderland SRO, described his role for the board. “If I had to yell at every single kid for not having a pass … I’m not going to be that trusted adult for them,” he said.

Ralston also said, “Some of these students come to me and tell me things they won’t tell you as parents, the social workers, the guidance counselor or the principals.”

School administrators, Ralston said, handle “little things” like students skipping class or vaping in the bathroom.

“I don’t want them to look at me as  disciplinarian,” he said, stressing it is not his job to discipline kids. Rather, he said, “I walk around, I hang out with kids. I talk to them.”

Ralston said that SROs complete a 40-hour training course covering behavior issues, work with administrators, investigations on child abuse and sex abuse, how to build relationships with kids, and how to work with special-education students.

Training is ongoing, Ralston said, as “things change.”

McNally noted that the cost of training an SRO  is borne by the police department as the officers are employed by the department.

Savanna Jiang, a student who serves on the district’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee asked if gender would be taken into account if another SRO is stationed in the schools.

“There’s a difference between female safety and male safety,” said Jiang, adding that a female officer would be beneficial to the female-identifying and nonbinary-identifying student populations.

“In our selection for any officer,” said McNally — Guilderland has 41 — “we look for the best educated, the best fit for that position. We don't generally look at race, sex.”

McNally said the school would be part of the interviewing process, adding, “I’m not opposed to having a student on that committee as well to help with that selection process.”

“I can’t believe we’re all here talking about finding money to keep our kids alive and safe and unharmed but we are,” said Thomas Green, suggesting there were “millions and billions in federal funds” available.

Wiles responded that she’d look into it and asked Green to send her particular agencies he had in mind.

Guilderland Police Officer Matthew Hanzlik asked about in-house research on the effectiveness of the Guilderland SRO program.

McNally said, while outside studies on SROs might not apply to Guilderland, the town’s police reform committee had  “found highly in favor of the SRO program.”

 

Board debate

Board member Nathan Sabourin said the rise in tension at the high school over the last few months “stems from racial tensions that students have been telling us have been here for years.” He referenced an incident at a football game where a cheering section had a “blackout” theme and some students painted their faces black, leading to a student walkout.

Sabourin went on, “My concern is, if it’s been here for years and we have an SRO program that’s supposed to be dealing with this, why hasn’t it been dealt with?”

“This has been an issue in society for years and, just recently, it’s spiked as well here in our school buildings,” said Hanzlik.

Sabourin went on to cite studies saying increased policing in schools negatively affects students of color.

Sabourin got pushback from some other board members.

Blanca Gonzalez-Parker, who serves on the subcommittee recommending a second SRO, called Sabourin’s question unfair.

“Is the SRO going to solve racial relations,” she asked as she raised her left hand and snapped her fingers. “No, it’s not, but that’s not fair to ask.”

Sabourin responded that the money might better be spent on counselors or reducing class size.

Referring to a video featuring Ralston in school hallways with students, which was part of Wiles’s presentation, Sabourin said, “What I saw was an officer wearing a gun and bullet-proof vest.”

Rivera said she wanted transparency and asked if the committee had done “research on both sides.”

Board member Rebecca Butterfield noted that Everytown for Gun Safety does not recommend SROs because of concerns for marginalized students and students with disabilities. “What do you say to that?” she asked McNally.

“Do you know me?” McNally responded. Butterfield did not and McNally went on, “I’m about as transparent as you can get … It’s all about communication.”

McNally continued, “One of the things I’m hearing tonight is an SRO is never going to stop a shooting in a school.”

Alluding to the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, McNally said, “A bunch of kids were killed while police were waiting outside and never did what they were supposed to do …. We failed miserably that day,” he said of police.

But, he went on, “We stop incidents from happening before they happen …. One of those incidents stopped a mass shooting in our school and that was two decades ago.”

Toward the end of the meeting, Savanna Jiang, a student on Guilderland’s DEI committee, said, “As the minority student here, I’d like to speak on behalf of those who are sort of apprehensive about the new SRO … I’d like to circle back to Mr. Sabourin’s point. The whole image of a police officer could be really intimidating to a student who either is currently living or who has previously lived in an area where they’ve had to sort of, for lack of a better word, hide or, like, try to avoid the police.”

Rivera, who had earlier said that, since the board can only discuss topics in public, this was its first real conversation on adding an SRO, said, “I think this is the start of a bigger discussion.”

Gonzalez-Parker, however, pushed for a timeline.

“We have an offer on the table. We have students who are concerned. We have community members who have come out. We have administrators telling us they could use an SRO at the middle school and we’re kind of not even letting them know when we might have a decision,” she said.

Wiles said she would get the curriculum from McNally and could look into grants as well as surveying students so the issue could come back to the board at its Dec. 6 meeting.

Rivera had earlier recommended surveying students, which Wiles said could be done through an ongoing online ThoughtExchange.

At the very end of the meeting, during a second public-comment period, Elizabeth Floyd Mair, a member of the district’s DEI Committee (and also a former Altamont Enterprise reporter), recommended students also be asked if they have seen a rise in violent incidents and how they should be addressed.

“It sounds like we are agreed that having another SRO will not resolve the rise in behavioral issues and disruptive incidents that have reportedly been on the increase ….,” said Floyd Mair, who suggested an in-person town hall-style meeting “to talk about what is happening and to seek possible solutions.”

“That’s a good suggestion,” said Rivera.

More Guilderland News

  • The five candidates are all supportive of the district’s efforts with diversity, equity, and inclusion. They each see merits in state initiatives such as for electric buses and universal pre-kindergarten. And, while several expressed animosity toward Crossgates Mall for pursuing massive tax refunds, none of the candidates thought school budgets should top the state-set levy limit. For voters choosing among the five candidates, the differences lie in the professional and life experiences each would bring to the board as well as in the specifics of how they would wrestle with these issues.

  • The anniversary worship service starts at 11 a.m. in the church at 2291 Western Ave. followed by a luncheon in Fellowship Hall at 12:15 p.m. The Buena Comida taco truck will also be out in the church’s parking lot. Guilderland’s town historian, Mary Ellen Johnson, will speak in the sanctuary at 1 p.m. on the church’s history.

  • On May 14, project consultants from MJ Engineering provided the  committee with an overview of the preliminary draft plan. 

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