Our Tarrytown Union Free school systems’ general safety, and that of all the hundreds of children within it, falls largely on the shoulders of school superintendent Dr. Howard Smith. The Newtown massacre has certainly made that burden that much heavier.
Smith, though the search committee is full-throttle into finding his replacement, was busy Friday, Monday, and planned to be in the days to come, doing his best to address any security issues that both parents and educators alike have been raising in the aftermath of the unthinkable tragedy that befell Sandy Hook Elementary School and its many victims.
After his Friday afternoon email welcoming input and questions, Smith said he has received mostly emails, all reasonable and constructed, asking for a clarification of school policies and an investigation into the possibility of stepping them up.
To clarify the way things are now:
In grades K through 8, doors are all locked by day, accessible only by buzzer release which is connected to a camera. Smith said the buzzers are near the screens, so office workers cannot buzz someone in without being near the screen.
However, Smith wanted to stress what may be hard for many parents to hear: “We are trying to help people understand that if a determined gunman wants access there isn’t a lot anyone can do can stop him.”
Police investigation in Connecticut has revealed that Adam Lanza shot his way through such a locked/buzzer system, said Smith.
What we can improve upon, said Smith, are the procedures that take place within the school – what do we do if an intruder is in the building? How does a lockdown work, and do our teachers – and the students – practice this?
Smith said the procedures for lockdown are written out and they have not been routinely practiced with kids. He plans to have some discussion with administrators to review at what age level would it be appropriate to practice this with children.
The emergency plan is reviewed annually, Smith said, though he noted that the plan currently posted on the district website is older.
When asked if the plan is made in collaboration with the villages’ respective police departments – Tarrytown’s purview includes Washington Irving and John Paulding schools; Sleepy Hollow, the middle and high schools and Morse – he said that it is “developed in conjunction with a lot of different groups.”
Both police departments noted no stepped up security on Friday at school’s close or ongoing now, though they are as present at certain crosswalks as usual.
Police have the floor plans of the schools, said Smith. The fire department have keys to the schools. Smith said he was unsure if police also had keys, and thus the question arises: if there is a lockdown, how do emergency responders get in? Smith said the Tarrytown police department had practiced security measures, but in an empty school on a weekend; the school has not practiced anything together with the police.
On Monday, the Town of Mt. Pleasant had scheduled a meeting with area school administrators and law enforcement officials to make sure they were all on the same page. Principals in our district were also interacting with their staffs on Monday to sniff out any areas of concern.
At the middle/high school level, it is harder to keep things under such tight control, Smith said. “It’s an open campus... students can leave for lunch.” All doors are locked, however, except for the main entrance. The procedure here is “supposed to be that you sign in and get IDed as a visitor and get a badge,” Smith said, but whether this always happens is another matter.
There is no one at the front entrance monitoring the coming and goings of students and others the way there often is in NYC schools. Many NYC schools also have metal detectors. Smith noted that these things would not have stopped such a killer on a rampage either.
“The reality is is that schools are vulnerable,” said Smith.
The high school used to have a School Resource Officer, who was a police officer but without a formal uniform and with no gun. This was a grant-funded program that expired a few years ago and was more educational than safety-oriented, he said. The officer “was more proactive than reactive,” keeping his “finger on the pulse on kids and getting involved early” such as when a fight might be brewing.
The resource officer, said Smith, “generally also conveyed a sense that a police officer is also a helper, it was about trying to build a comfort level and teach kids that police are approachable.”
This position, because funded by grant, was never on anyone’s budget. And therein lies the real difficulty of asking for more school security and systems. Whether it be personnel or technology or other, the question comes inevitably: who will pay?
Our schools, like so many schools, are strapped. Certainly, said Smith, if it proves necessary to do more security-wise than what they’re doing, they will find a way.
“We have to make a judgment on how far we go,” said Smith.
The high/middle school is well-rigged with security cameras but they are more for internal than external purposes. The cameras keeps teens in check, said Smith, knowing they can’t do things, like pull a fire alarm, anonymously. “Frankly they are more for after the fact, to check the cameras and see what happened,” Smith said.
The buzzers and security cameras are relatively new technologies in our system, all having arrived here since 9-11. Before our culture of fear got a big boost from that terrorist attack, the doors were open. “It hasn’t been that long since schools weren’t locked," Smith said. "People were feeling more vulnerable since 9-11.”
Still, Smith stresses schools are meant to be open. They should be welcoming in their nature, and there’s a fine line he treads. Parents, he noted, have often complained about having to sign in again and again when they are well-known to the administrators.
Considering what measures he would take at this point, Smith is asking, “what can you sustain over time. What is proportional to the risk.” A risk, that though frightening, might be lower than one’s chances of crashing in an airplane.
He hopes that once this “immediately emotional aftermath passes that we can do something that stands the test of time.”
What that will look like is going to depend on those emails he gets from parents, and the input from teachers, principals, even students.
Smith said several students have come forward to seek some psychological guidance in the last few days. One boy said he couldn’t shake his anxiety as he looked out his first-floor classroom window and kept thinking someone might approach at any moment.
“Heartbreaking,” said Smith. “Everyone is on alert today."
As far as how teachers are addressing this in the classrooms, Smith said the general rule of thumb is that they take their cue from the students. The teachers won’t bring it up unless there’s a question asked and then it might be directed to a guidance counselor or something more one-on-one rather than with the whole class.
Principals are also reaching out to parents and offering advice. A letter came home, for instance, with Pre-K students on Monday, from interim principal Rosemary Prati, with tips ("limit your child's television viewing") and reassuring parents that "students came to school happy, prepared and eager to learn today. As such, we began our day as we typically do by providing a safe and nurturing environment for all students."
As did Smith, Prati welcomed parents to share their concerns with her. "We will be responsive to needs of children, staff and parents as they come to our attention."
Smith continues to collect this feedback as school officials do the same and “then we’ll put our heads together," he said. Though he didn’t expect holding a meeting on just this topic, he would report his findings to the Board most likely at the next meeting on January 10 at 8 p.m.
You may email Dr. Howard Smith using this form, or call his office, (914) 332-6241.