Every morning, parents all over the Capital District can be seen waving goodbye to their kids as they ride away on the school bus. Moms and dads send their kids to school to learn and prosper in what is expected to be a safe environment. But one of the more horrifying realities to come from recent school shootings is how vulnerable schools everywhere are to violence.
In the days following the Sandy Hook tragedy, Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake School District Superintendent Patrick McGrath says he was overwhelmingly swamped with concerns from parents … and rightfully so, he says.
“I was inundated with emails from parents saying that we have to do something,” he says. “This day and age, it’s too easy to walk into our schools. That was a launching point.”
McGrath had only been in the district a couple of months at the time. Previously, he had been at the Mohonasen School District, where he felt security was a top priority prior to Sandy Hook.
“We had guidance there from our resource officers to take it seriously,” McGrath says.
It was then that McGrath decided to make security top priority at his new district, also.
The Mohonasen School District wasn’t the only area district to be ahead of the game. At the Ballston Spa School District, protocols had also already been put into place.
“The district has always been proactive,” says Stuart Williams, coordinator of community resources at the district. “We did a full security audit as a district goal and priority prior to the tragedy.”
Similar to the Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake School District, other schools in the Capital District began to re-examine their security and emergency preparedness. Some installed security personnel at front doors and cameras throughout the buildings, and others began to coordinate drills to instruct teachers and children how to get to a safe place in the event of an emergency. While students from the 1950s might remember “duck and cover” drills practiced as a way to protect students from the effects of a nuclear explosion, kids today have become very familiar with “lockdown” and “shelter in place” drills to protect in the case of an intrusion.
Donya Clute, a mother of two boys in the Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake School District, says she is glad to see the district taking security more seriously.
“I’m happy to see the changes that are being made in our schools,” she says.
Mosaic Associates, a security solutions company in Troy, has been working with a number of area school districts in order to make physical changes to the school buildings. Gene Browning, Associate Architect with Mosaic Associates says, “Some of the older buildings have main entrances that lead right into the hallways or the lobby. We are working with the districts to add a secure vestibule.”
Browning believes having a secure vestibule at the main entrance is one of the most important changes that can be made to a building, and one of the elementary schools in Burnt Hills was recently fitted with electronic doors where it previously allowed free access to major hallways.
“The majority of schools have already undertaken a single point of entry procedure,” he says. “They can control that primary entry point with keyless access and an intercom system to the main office, or a security booth at the main entrance to screen visitors.”
In the Bethlehem School District, Elsmere Elementary requires visitors to buzz in before entering the school.
“You need to go to the office first to check in. They have a window for them to see, and you can’t go anywhere else before that,” says Christine Cubello, who has three kids in Elsmere Elementary School. “I like it and feel my kids are safe.”
Browning does admit that the structural changes can be extensive, depending on the layout of the building.
“It can be a big change, but ideally you want a manned, secured vestibule,” he says. “A resource officer or a designated person who is reviewing visitors, checking their ID before allowing them through the second set of doors.”
Browning says it’s important that all visitors be screened outside of the school.
“It has to be at a manned desk for it to work. Without the ability to man that system, it’s not as effective,” he says. “If the office is not near the entrance, you are really forced to either move the entrance or the office or both, and this can be expensive.”
McGrath says parents in the district have been in support of the structural changes.
“We passed a bond referendum in October for those schools that required significantly more structural work,” he says. “We needed to get voter approval and did get approval.”
McGrath also says that parents don’t seem to mind being scanned in.
Similar changes have been made in the North Colonie School District.
“We built a new entranceway at the junior high where someone gets buzzed into a door and then into an alcove,” says Joe Corr, Superintendent of North Colonie School District. “In our elementary schools, before the Newtown incident we had a buzz system in place. Individuals who wanted to come in would push the button, and their image would come up on a TV screen.”
Browning says it comes down to controlling the main entrance.
“It’s just a matter of hardening the exterior of the building,” he says.
Some schools have chosen to keep guard before the main door with video surveillance cameras monitoring suspicious activity.
“A lot of the schools either have limited camera coverage or six-position cameras where you are looking at the same view all day long,” Browning says. “Newer cameras can tilt, zoom and pan automatically. This gives a greater view. Some can sense motion and track motion. It will track a car long enough to read a license plate or a person and see the features.”
In recent years, school budgets have forced some districts to discontinue the use of a resource officer. School resource officers are typically employed by a local police or sheriff’s office, but work within school walls in an effort to keep a safe environment within the walls of the school.
Most school districts, however, have kept a close relationship with the local police.
Corr says despite the fact they do not have a resource officer in North Colonie Schools, the Colonie Police Department has been a valuable resource and community partner.
“Our relationship has been a very positive one,” Corr says. “They have been our main consultants. They have great expertise.”
Corr says the Colonie Police work with the district to practice various drills on a regular basis.
“After we do an event like that, we have an internal debriefing for their insight on ways to improve,” he says.
Browning said he is seeing a return of police presence in one way or another within schools.
“They may have been removed from the budget recently, but by way of a shift of staff or the hiring of a security director … we are seeing a return of that,” he says.
In Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake, one of the first tasks McGrath felt was needed was the hiring of a Director of Security.
“We hired retired State Trooper Phil Poitier, who spent a significant amount of time as a school resource officer,” McGrath says.
McGrath says Poitier has worked closely with administration to coordinate training and institute changes that have helped everyone to be more security conscious.
“He has trained staff to have a security mindset as they do their jobs and be more consistent with the way we operate with routines, how we handle situations and how we maintain security outside building,” McGrath says. “He can walk through the building, be present at meetings and help us.”
Browning stresses that all the changes in the world in regards to structure won’t necessarily work without procedures.
“You can have a strong building, but with weakness in how the policy is enforced, it’s not going to be as effective,” he says.
McGrath says that he likes to use the analogy of a home with his staff.
“I always say as parents we do secure our house. We would question someone walking on our lawn. We would lock our doors at night. We have a role in security as you would in your own home,” he says. “It takes time for people to think – if a door is open, pull it shut. When the PE classes go out, people put a sneaker to keep it open. You can’t do that.”
McGrath says it’s the little things more so than the giant tragedies that you can prevent with the proper procedures.
“For instance, if someone is angry and comes in, you know they are there and prepared for it,” he says.
“There are all kinds of things and lots of reasons why it’s good to have the mindset, besides the major catastrophes,” he says. “In situations where there is a criminal act in the area like a bank robbery, now I feel confident that in any of our buildings, I would be confident that in 60 seconds it would be completely locked from outside. I don’t think I could say that a year ago.”
Browning recently met up with local superintendents to talk about policies.
“It’s really district by district and how to follow through,” he says.
Though Browning hasn’t worked with any schools to install metal detectors, he has seen some bullet proof glass used.
“It’s very costly to use it at every glass in the building. We will see it at limited locations, like a security booth from the vestibule,” Browning says.
Another less costly option for schools is adding impact resistant film to the windows, which he has seen used at more schools.
“It doesn’t stop a bullet, but it does hold the glass in place after impact, so someone couldn’t break through a window and open the door for themselves. And to shoot through the window would take a long time,” he says.
Another inexpensive change is changing classroom door locks.
“Allowing the door to lock from the inside of the room, and this is simply a matter of changing the hardware on the door knob,” Browning says.
Browning says parents need to be the advocate.
“As taxpayers, they can be the voice in favor of these changes because they do come with a cost,” he says. “Parents can also work on committees to set policies and to note where there is a weakness in the system.”
Although no school can completely eliminate the possibility of a tragedy, strides are being made at schools to keep children as safe as possible.
In a statewide poll conducted about a year after the Sandy Hook massacre, a majority of New York state school superintendents report their schools are safer than they were just a year ago.
Though these changes will constantly need to be reevaluated and evolve over time, there is no question that the sad circumstances at Sandy Hook Elementary was the beginning of a common awareness that no school can be assumed safe, and that every school needs to take a good look at how to best ensure the safety of their students.