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In light of recent incidents, local school officials unveil updated safety plans | #schoolsaftey

M Clifford Miller School in Kingston. (Photo by Dion Ogust)

In the home stretch of the 2022-23 school year, the Kingston City School District (KCSD) saw its notions of safety and security tested in two high profile incidents, the first an allegedly calculated attack on a student in the Kingston High School (KHS) cafeteria, the second the arrest of an armed man on the M. Clifford Miller Middle School campus. In Kingston, as in other districts in the region and across the country, safety is about keeping students safe without making them feel unsafe. 

“That’s exactly what we worry about,” said KCSD Superintendent Paul Padalino. “We are trying to strike that balance, and I think that there’s either we have to be authoritative, but approachable. We have to strike that balance. And it is really a thin line between having our school buildings look and feel like prisons, but also having kids and families feel that their students are safe inside.”

Padalino spoke after a meeting of the KCSD Board of Education held in the Wendell A. Scherer Theatre at KHS during where an updated safety plan was discussed by Prevention and Safety Coordinator LeShawn Parker. The plan, which is available for review on the district’s website and will be voted on by trustees in July, was amended in part to make emergency lockdown plans more publicly opaque in an effort to minimize risk. 

But the revised safety plan doesn’t just remove information, it also adds it. Nearly two-and-a-half pages detailing response protocols are included in the new draft, including how the district might counter specific types of threats, a myriad of weapons and other potentially threatening incidents. 

Many safety measures are building-specific. According to Padalino, bag checks at KHS instituted after the early-May cafeteria fight remained in place for the remainder of the school year and may extend into 2023-24. 

“It’s not really invasive, it’s not a metal detector where it doesn’t create a different environment in the building, at least here,” Padalino said. “We found we had great success in our bag checks, not in finding things, but I think in keeping it from happening. And we also have seen a massive drop in vaping.”

Padalino also spoke of the importance of School Resource Officers at the secondary level. Two City of Kingston Police officers serve as School Resource Officers (SROs) at KHS, one City of Kingston Police officer at J. Watson Bailey Middle School and one Town of Ulster Police officer at Miller. 

In the KCSD safety plan, the district makes it clear that the SRO is a manifestation of the district’s overriding philosophy on school safety: They’re there to keep students safe, but they also have to keep students comfortable. 

“SROs contribute to the safety of the KCSD community personally and through the use of the resources available to them as agents of law enforcement,” reads the amended safety plan. “SROs receive specialized training in child and adolescent cognitive development, de-escalation techniques, and alternatives to arrest and diversion strategies. They must demonstrate the requisite personality and character to work in a diverse school environment with children and educators.”

To that end, the district’s SROs are selected not only by local police departments and school district administrators, but also “representative groups of teachers, parents and students.”

Padalino said a good SRO builds a relationship with the students and can be a greater deterrent than technology. 

“A metal protector will spot some metal, but it’s not going help figure out what’s going on with the kids,” Padalino said.

Padalino said the KCSD has taken finding the right balance very seriously, visiting other small city school districts to see how they operate. But school officials remain wary of going too far. 

“It’s supposed to be fun here,” Padalino said. “You’re supposed to play ball, you’re supposed to see your friends. But we did visit districts who do it really effectively, and the kids have just gotten used to it.”

Onteora School District

The SRO program is also an important piece of the school safety puzzle in the Onteora Central School District (OCSD). 

“While I believe that there will always be differing points of view on police presence in schools, I believe that our community strongly supports our School Resource Officer,” said OCSD Superintendent Victoria McLaren. “He is an incredibly positive addition to our district and we are very fortunate to have him as a partner.”

Like the KCSD, the OCSD’s security and safety measures have evolved over time, particularly in the last decade. 

“We have definitely placed a much higher focus on school safety in the past 5-10 years,” McLaren said. “We have increased our camera coverage, we shifted to having our buildings locked and requiring visitors to sign in utilizing our visitor management system, we have a School Resource Officer, we have an anonymous alert app, and in general I believe that school safety has become more of a priority for everyone in our school community. Our families and our students are active partners in maintaining school safety.”

New Paltz School District

Safety in the New Paltz Central School District (NPCSD) is also about finding a balance, said Superintendent Stephen Gratto. And that comes from considerable conversation and reflection. Thus far, that does not include an SRO. 

“We’re cognizant of the fact that not everybody would agree on what safety precautions are most necessary, and there’s a lot of things you can do besides have a School Resource Officer,” Gratto said. “I’m sure that people have opinions, but at this point I don’t see a lot of people calling for a School Resource Officer.” 

The NPCSD has its own Safety Committee which consults with a security company; they recently sat down for a “tabletop exercise” to discuss the best responses to a wide range of safety issues. 

“We’re taking all the safety precautions that we can,” Gratto said. 

Those precautions include the recent addition of the Raptor visitor check-in system, which enables monitors to ascertain in real time a person’s identity; and the ongoing installation of new locks on all exterior doors of school buildings, a federal grant funded program. 

“Teachers will be able to lock the doors more easily in the case of a lockdown,” Gratto said. “We’re looking at all options to make things as safe as we can.”

Saugerties School District

Late last month, the Saugerties Central School District (SCSD) began seeking community input about the possible hiring of security guards; the district’s 2023-24 operating budget includes funding for one security guard at each of the SCSD’s three elementary schools and on the Jr./Sr. High School campus. The primary question the district is asking the public is whether they believe the security guards should be armed or unarmed. 

“We understand that many people may have very strong opinions on this topic and are providing this opportunity for feedback before decisions are made,” wrote Interim Superintendent Daniel Erceg in a May 26 letter to the community. “Your feedback will be one of the factors considered in the recommendation presented to the Board of Education. Implementation of the function of Certified Security Guards will involve future planning in much greater detail.”

Erceg’s letter also detailed other safety initiatives undertaken by the SCSD, including updating threat assessment protocols, conducting building safety walkthroughs, replacing emergency communication devices, and designing secure entry vestibules, which are planned as part of the district’s ongoing capital project. 

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