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Editorial Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, July 14, 2005

Let’s settle our differences with respect

We are raising a fear-filled generation.

Brennan Hawkins, an 11-year-old boy from Utah, was lost in the wilderness in June. As searchers sought to rescue him, news reports state, he saw them but he hid from them. He was afraid of being kidnapped.

The story had a happy ending. But what if Brennan had hidden so well that no one found him" What if he had died in the wilderness" Would those who had taught him to not trust strangers — perhaps his teachers, perhaps his parents — been held liable for his death"

This question probably sounds absurd. But a similar argument was made last week at the Guilderland School Board meeting as the board was deciding whether it should approve a proposal made by a subcommittee on school security, to institute a locked-door policy at the district’s five elementary schools.

One board member said that school board members in Littleton, Colo., the site of the 1999 massacre at Columbine High School, were being sued. He urged the board to consider what kind of liability it would have if there were a tragedy and the board had ignored the subcommittee’s advice.

Reasonable people, people who are committed to the safety and welfare of children, can have differing ideas on how best to make schools safe.

Parents backing the plan urged the board to "listen to the experts" and to "make the right choice," even stating that "any rational person must agree."

Parents who opposed the plan questioned the reasons for the committee's fear and the "paranoia" expressed in the report.

What was most troubling about the school board's discussion was the polarization, where some members didn’t grant others the basic respect of believing that each cared about the welfare of children.

One board member went so far as to propose 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 should be required to inform the family of the tragedy.

We liked the response of the newly-elected board president, Gene Danese. He said, "I think we would all feel bad if something happened"; it wouldn’t matter who had voted for or against the locked doors. "We all would apologize," he said.

It’s understandable that the members of the subcommittee who have spent months meeting and researching believe they know the best way to make schools secure. And they may be right.

But, unless the community backs that plan, it won’t work. As one board member pointed out, doors are easily propped open.

Ultimately, in a split vote, the board made a wise choice — to put monitors at the schools’ front doors and than re-evaluate before proceeding with locking doors.

Schools are places of learning and what we teach our children there shapes them for a lifetime. Of course, we all want our children to be safe. But what does safety mean"

A look at the last decade of Guilderland school history is instructive.

Eight years ago, well before the Columbine tragedy, an intruder entered Pine Bush Elementary School; no harm was done. But it "sent a message that that can happen anywhere," Nancy Andrews told The Enterprise years ago. Andress is now the district's assistant superintendent for instruction and she heads the Safe and Drug-Free-Schools committee; its subcommittee came up with the proposal for locking the schools and putting a monitor in front to admit visitors.

"We’ve relied on the building cabinets at each school to develop a plan," Andress said back then. "The building cabinets began to look at questions like, ‘Do we lock doors"’ or ‘What kind of security do we have"’ Each building needed to look at its culture and develop recommendations. Our committee never said, ‘Lock all the doors.’

"Most have elected to leave one door open, and to lock the side and rear doors," she said, "while instituting a process where there are visitor badges...None have opted to do video surveillance."

In April of 1999, in the wake of the school killings at Columbine, many school districts rushed to beef up security, installing metal detectors and surveillance cameras and hiring armed officers.

We liked the approach taken by Guilderland School Board members and administrators. Blaise Salerno, who was superintendent at the time, spoke to Guilderland High School students and the board of the need for "the development of a caring community, one in which we look after each other."

Salerno encouraged students to help those who were troubled, and, if it seemed too much to handle, to seek help from a teacher or administrator. He said he realized this was considered "ratting" and went against school culture.

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 board members supported the superintendent's stance at that April meeting.

In 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 the killings took place. 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.

A year later, in 2000, Andress described for us the role of the government-required safe-schools committee at Guilderland. "Our goal," she said, "is to do collaborative work to insure safety and security for all students and staff. We want to create a welcoming and positive environment....Cameras don’t set a welcoming tone; they set a distrustful tone."

Andress said the committee discussed students’ rights when it discussed video cameras and decided against them. She concluded, "Our committee’s focus is on prevention and intervention."

The district has done much with that, launching, for example, a National Coalition-Building Institute program where diverse high school students and teachers work together to develop awareness of prejudice and learn to build respect.

At the start of the last school year, Guilderland launched a district-wide anti-bullying program.

We’ve written here before that schools should be sanctuaries, not citadels. We praised the Guilderland schools for putting trust first, for appealing to conscience rather than the threat of Big Brother watching, of being taped and caught. We wrote that, if our children can learn to settle their differences with the respect that comes through meaningful discussion rather than with the violence or intolerance that comes from threats, there would be hope for us all.

We still believe that to be true.

— Melissa Hale-Spencer

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