Two decades at GCSD: Changing views on school safety
GUILDERLAND — Over the last 20 years, security has increased in the Guilderland schools as it has in many schools across the country. During that time, the stance of district leaders has shaped the response to bomb threats and other safety issues.
This week and last, two empty bomb threats were made at Guilderland’s high school, pointing up the fact that students as much as outsiders can disrupt education.
While bomb threats have been gradually increasing since 2012, schools in the United States experienced 1,267 threats during the 2015-16 school year, an increase of 106 percent compared to that same time period in 2012-13, according to a report by the Educator’s School Safety Network.
Last year, the report says, New York schools had 45 bomb threats, placing the state eighth nationwide; Massachusetts schools had the most threats at 135, and Wyoming and Nevada had the least, with one each.
Real bombs are often not connected to warnings. The report notes that in that same school year, 2015-16, four explosive devices were found, and one detonation occurred in United States schools.
More than half the threats were made by calls, about a third by writing in the school, and a tenth were made by social media or email. Seventy-nine percent of schools evacuated when faced with a bomb threat, 14 percent locked down, and 7 percent canceled classes.
“Given the close geographic proximity and dates of bomb threat clusters, there is clearly a copycat effect,” the report says. “The initial threat provokes a satisfyingly disruptive response and a good deal of media attention, encouraging others to perpetrate additional threats to achieve similar results.”
GCSD looks at each school’s “culture”
Guilderland began a two-decades-long discussion on school safety in 1997 when an intruder entered Pine Bush Elementary School. No harm was done. But it “sent a message that that can happen anywhere,” said Nancy Andress at the time. Andress, who has long since retired, headed the district’s Safe and Drug Free Schools Committee.
At that time, individual school cabinets made plans for security at each school. “Each building needed to look at its culture and develop recommendations,” said Andress. “Our committee never said, ‘Lock all doors.’” Most of Guilderland’s seven schools in the mid-1990s elected to leave their front doors open. “While instituting a process where there are visitor badges…none have opted to do video surveillance,” Andress said at the time.
In May of 1998, a seventh-grader at Farnsworth Middle School brought an empty automatic rifle clip to school. The Albany County Sheriff’s Department said he showed classmates the clip as proof he had a rifle, which he said he would use to shoot some teachers.
He was suspended from school for the year and he was charged with the juvenile equivalent of second-degree aggravated harassment, a misdemeanor; his case was handled in Albany County Family Court, which seals its records.
The student’s mother said officials had overreacted and filed a suit for $750,000 in federal district court. The student’s parents eventually settled with the sheriff’s department and the Guilderland School District. The court sealed the settlement papers and neither side would comment on their content.
The 1998 incident occurred at a time when guns at school had resulted in several tragedies and heightened awareness of youths threatening violence.
Of the dozen shooting deaths at schools nationwide that year, the most publicized case was in Janesboro, Arkansas where two boys, ages 11 and 13, were charged with fatally shooting four schoolmates and a teacher after setting off a false fire alarm.
In April of 1999, in the wake of the school killings at Columbine in Colorado, many districts rushed to beef up security, installing metal detectors and surveillance cameras and bringing in armed officers.
Blaise Salerno, who was Guilderland’s superintendent at the time, spoke to high-school students and the school, board of the need for “the development of a caring community, one in which we look after each other.”
He assured students that “the position of the district was not to be punitive…but to supply appropriate help and support for anyone.”
Alluding to the fact that the two boys who caused the Columbine slaughter considered themselves outcasts, Salerno said it was the right of every individual to demonstrate difference and to be accepted.
“It is the differences between us that challenge us to be better than we are,” he said. Salerno concluded of schools, “Not only are they places of learning, but they are sanctuaries.”
The school board members supported the superintendent’s stance at their April 1999 meeting.
That May, two Guilderland Police officers were stationed in the schools — one in the middle school and one at the high school. Their role, the superintendent said at the time, was to serve as educators, not just as enforcers.
Several school board members pointed out that Columbine had an armed deputy sheriff on hand at the time of the killings. Several others raised questions about the officers’ carrying guns and it was ultimately decided they would wear dressed-down uniforms, with their guns concealed in waist packs.
“Maximum possible felonies”
In 2000, under the leadership of a new superintendent, Gregory Aidala, a 12-year-old Farnsworth student was charged by Guilderland Police with first-degree falsely reporting an incident, a felony. He was arrested the day after another student had discovered the words “Bomb! At 1:00” written on the wall of a boys’ bathroom. Farnsworth’s nearly 1,4000 students were herded into the school gym where they waited for two-and-a-half hours — while police with a bomb-sniffing dog and staff searched the school — until they received an all-clear signal.
Aidala issued a release saying the district would “exercise all legal avenues to assure that this act is punished with the maximum possible felonies.”
A law passed in 1999 had made it a felony to falsely report an incident if the person knew it “to be false or baseless and under circumstances in which it is likely public alarm or inconvenience will result…warning of an impending occurrence of a fire, an explosion, or the release of a hazardous substance upon school grounds and it is likely that persons are present on said grounds.”
This began a spate of bomb threats at Farnsworth — including seven in the fall of 2002. The suspects faced felony charges.
That fall, parents turned out in force — over 200 of them — to find out more about the hoaxes. They learned that writing on school walls — this was before the advent of emails — had been interpreted by school officials as threats.
Asked why felony charges were made, Superintendent Aidala said, “We are angry and frustrated by the amount of time we spend dealing with these issues.” Asked if clearing the schools might not inspire copycat threats, with such a response giving the culprits tremendous power rather than just treating it like graffiti vandalism, Aidala said, “Once they see the consequences, we expect students will get the message — it’s a very serious situation.”
A state law that was new at the time allowed police departments to be paid for costs related to such incidents, if the suspect were convicted — up to $10,000 from an individual and up to $5,000 from the parents of a convicted child.
At the same time that Aidala said all bomb threats should be pursued “to the fullest extent of the law” — as felonies — the high school principal at the time, John Whipple, said, “You have to look at each situation separately…Until we find out who did it and why, I can’t say.”
The high school typically had one or two bomb threats a year, Brian Forte said in 2011 after such a threat was made that October, written on the wall of a boys’ bathroom. Forte was the school resource officer at that time. He noted no actual bomb had ever been found after threats were made in Guilderland schools.
Such threats elicit a “shelter in place” response where the school’s doors are locked and no one is allowed in the driveways. All classrooms are locked in place while police officers patrol the common areas. Students continue instruction in their classrooms until it is determined the building is safe.
Board deeply divided on locked doors
In 2005, a subcommittee of Guilderland’s Safe and Drug Free Schools Committee came up with a proposal for locking the schools and putting a monitor in front of each to admit visitors.
The school board was deeply divided on whether to institute a locked-door policy at Guilderland’s five elementary schools. Parents backing the plan urged the board to “listen to the experts,” even stating that “any rational person must agree.”
School board member Linda Bakst, her voice quavering with passion, remarked that the Department of Homeland Security had recommended duct tape and cellophane for protection, indicating that experts aren’t always to be believed.
Parents who opposed the plan questioned the reasons for the committee’s fear and the “paranoia” expressed in the report. “It’s a huge injustice to spend such a large sum of money on a statistically insignificant risk,” Jeanna Cornetti, an educator and Guilderland resident, told the board. The overwhelming majority of school violence, she said, is generated by students.
School board member Peter Golden proposed that, if a child were to be harmed by an intruder — an intruder who would have been kept out by a locked door — then one of the board members who voted against the locked doors would be required to inform the family of the tragedy.
Ultimately, in a split vote, the board decided to put monitors at the schools’ front doors and then re-evaluate before proceeding with locked doors.
After Sandy Hook
In December 2010, in the wake of the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, Guilderland school leaders met with first responders from local fire, police, and emergency services to be sure Guilderland had a good plan to deter violence and deal with an emergency.
“I always say our first job is not teaching and learning; it’s safety,” the current superintendent, Marie Wiles, said at the time.
Wiles noted that what happened at Sandy Hook was not because of a failed safety system. The gunman shot his way through the glass in the locked front entrance, police say; he then shot the principal and other adults who rushed to prevent his rampage.
Wiles, who had recently returned from a trip to Guilderland’s sister school in China, said, “In China, every school had a gate, an armed guard, and a gatehouse….I certainly hope that is not the direction we go. Schools are the heart and soul of a community.”
In March of 2013, the New York State School Boards Association released a report, “Tending to Our Youth,” calling for access for students to mental health resources to prevent further shootings.
“We cannot and should not turn our schools into fortresses,” the report quotes from the December 2012 Connecticut School Shooting Position Statement, issued after the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School, and endorsed by more than 100 organizations representing over four million professionals, including teachers, principals, psychologist, social workers, and mental-health workers.
The position statement notes that hundreds of multiple casualty shootings occur in communities throughout the United States every year, although few of them are in schools. “Children are safer in schools than in almost any other place, including, for some, their own homes,” it says.
The statement also says, “In every mass shooting, we must consider two keys to prevention: (1) the presence of severe mental illness and/or (2) an intense interpersonal conflict that the person could not resolve or tolerate….Inclination to intensify security in schools should be reconsidered.”
The “Tending to Our Youth” report expanded on those themes, stating, “Building and maintaining relationships within and around the school community can help keep school violence from happening while fostering academic success…For students, trusting relationships with adults are critical to learning…School engagement is essential. Students who are involved in extracurricular activities, for example, feel more connected to school.”
“Balance our priorities”
By the fall of 2013, when voters approved an $18 million bond issue for building upgrades, including improved safety measures — with schools reconfigured so that visitors enter protected vestibules where they show identification before gaining entrance to the school — the board was unanimous in supporting the plan.
A week before the bond vote, the board heard a presentation on school safety during which Wiles said that “a safe learning environment” was at the center of day-to-day life in the schools.
The presentation highlighted such measures as off-site video monitoring at the police department in case of an emergency, preparedness drills, installing locksets that let teachers lock doors from the inside, educating nurses on triage, increasing police presence around the district, and using police dogs to detect drugs in student lockers.
“We really are at the forefront of school safety,” said Lisa Patierne, an assistant principal at the high school. As school shootings have increased, Patierne said, the federal government has “sounded the alarm” and is paying for training for school administrators like herself.
Safety procedures include such techniques as SPOT, which stands for Screening Persons by Observational Techniques, and is taught to Guilderland hall monitors.
“We have to balance our priorities,” said Patierne of keeping the schools safe and also having them be “warm, friendly, inviting places.”