The task force that toiled mightily this summer to find ways to improve school safety has presented the Somers Board of Education with the fruits of its labors.
And the good news is, the district is already doing a lot of things it and consultants have identified as “best practices.”
The better news is that the majority of things that can use a little tweaking can be undertaken for little or no money.
Anything big, such as a capital improvement project, that the district might decide to do down the road would be financed through the bonding process.
Representing the task force at Aug. 28 presentation to the Board of Education were: Jonathan Lyons; Katie Taylor, Robert S. Ondrovic, Tom Garrity, and John Laplaca, CEO of Altaris, a consulting group hired by the school district to help it identify opportunities from policy and procedure changes to potential major capital improvement projects.
Laplaca noted that hundreds of school shootings have occurred around the country since the 2012 Sandy Hook tragedy.
“Every time something occurs we (as a country) pivot,” Laplaca said. “People ask: ‘What did you do to prevent damage to property and save lives?’”
Somers, he said, is “well ahead of many districts in the region, even in the country” because it’s both proactive and committed.
While working with the community volunteers and educators, and observing the amount of “heart and soul” they put into their work, Laplaca said he realized that Somers was not just in it to “check the boxes and say yea, we looked into that”
“We looked at things quite critically and we collaborated and put our heads together to make sure it’s not only the ‘best practice’ but it’s right for Somers,” he said.
Somers was already doing a lot of things correctly as far as “best practices” were concerned which, Laplaca said, is just as important as “identifying the gaps and loopholes that a school district may have because school districts tend to operate in vacuums, wondering if they are doing the right thing, what other districts are doing.”
“Somers is doing a lot of things right now so I’m happy to report on that.”
Referring to the SROS, the fact that they are armed is a “fringe benefit,” of what they do there. It’s not the primary thing Laplaca said, explaining that they are “ambassadors from law enforcement .They will develop relationships and become a part of the culture.”
The anonymous reporting system also helps, he said.
“Districts do not want students to come into the criminal justice system for any reason. We want to avoid that at all costs.”
“It’s not one thing that makes your district safer, it’s a bunch of layers,” Laplaca said at the end of the presentation.
Those included, he explained: multiple safety drills, emergency training for staff and students, phones in each classroom, single points of entry for school buildings, portable radios and safety vests, safety vestibules, after-hours security personnel, and, most importantly, the hiring of two more armed school resource officers (SROs) so that each of its four buildings will be covered.
Both Altaris and the task force did not recommend that the district install permanent metal detectors – because of the cost and other factors – or door wedges and magnets, because they violate fire codes.
A properly run metal detection program like airports and courthouses have can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Other factors include the potential for creating bottlenecks, and because they can be thwarted in a variety of ways.
Portable “wand” metal detectors are the better choice, Altaris found, because they can be used “to assist with specific investigations” or “as a deterrent” while conducting random checks.
Another thing that folks focus on after a “critical incident” are security cameras, Laplaca said.
“Cameras do have a place in schools, but they are more reactive or investigative tools. There are not really used much for preventative purposes. Even though people tend to think twice if they see a building has good camera coverage before they act, but certainly, administrators will tell you this, they are used to investigate who did what, and how. And they can be invaluable tools in the middle of an emergency to see what is the condition of the building. What do we need to do now? Where do we need to assign our resources?”
In general, “best practices” involving technology, Laplaca noted, do not take the place of people when preventing and responding to emergencies: but can “greatly enhance the overall safety and security of schools.”
They include: electronic access control for both exterior and interior doors, robust security camera coverage on both the exterior and interior of all school buildings, and a lockdown panic system.
Stressing that the report was just a “starting point” -- with an ongoing and improving process to be maintained – it recommended (with suggested timelines for implementation):
• Single point of entry for each building (within three months);
• Increased emergency training for students (nine plus months);
• Updated safety drills (three to nine months);
• Improved threat assessment process to address mental health concerns (three to nine months);
• Prepare and deliver presentation to community regarding the district’s social and emotional wellness programs (three to nine months);
• Improved procedures regarding employee sign-in and sign-out (within three months).
Student training, safety drills and threat assessment policies are already taking place and will be improved upon, the report said.
• Updated parent reunification kits (within three months);
• Updated protocol flip charts (i.e. short guides for every class with guidelines for emergency responses) (within three months).
The district has already bought portable radios and safety vests for staff members to improve communication and the admittance and dismissal process at each building.
• Improvements to address the perimeter safety of the Primrose Elementary School playground (nine plus months);
• Safety/security film on exterior windows and doors (nine plus months);
• Improved uniform signage (i.e. signs noting that vehicles parked in certain areas are subject to search or that visitors must check in at the front desk.) (nine plus months).
Exterior safety at Primrose and the middle school will be enhanced within the next school year by the completion of construction of vestibules, the task force noted.
The district has already installed a new fence between Route 139 and Primrose’s playground, increasing the height to eight feet and will add mesh to limit visibility.
• Swipe card access/locks to the classroom level (nine plus months);
• Safety/security film on exterior windows and doors (nine plus months);
• Add locks to the limited number of intermediate school rooms without them (and which are currently not in use) (three to nine months).
• Lockdown panic system (nine plus months);
• Door ajar systems, providing notice when any exterior door is open (nine plus months);
• Increased security cameras (nine plus months).
The district has already purchased a VOIP phone system, and is in the process of installing phones in each classroom. This allows for better coordination and communication throughout the entire building and district and lets emergency responders know the exact origination of the call.
Once this is up and running, an automated lockdown panic system could potentially be “built on the platform and implemented,” the report said.
• Increased (security) staffing (nine plus months);
• Single point of entry (within three months);
• Improved visitor policy (within three months).
The district has already begun to hire staffing and develop new policies for after school.
Lyons said members who volunteered from the community at large were pleasantly surprised to learn that most of the things Altaris identifies as “best practices” were already in place, or are being addressed by the district.
“It’s great, wonderful, what they’re doing,” Lyons said.
ALREADY IN PLACE
• The district’s chief emergency officer along with its SROs and Putnam Northern Westchester BOCE safety officer, conduct regular security checks and review safety plans for each building throughout the year.
• The district partners with law enforcement agencies and other emergency responders to develop safety procedures and to train staff and students.
• Daily safety measures include single point of entry and check-in systems, an armed SRO with a police car on each campus, regular checking of all exterior doors by the SROs, security vestibules at the intermediate and high schools (with vestibules at Primrose and the middle school expected to be complete by next summer), security cameras in multiple locations, sweeps of the buildings by both night and morning custodians, and a professionally monitored motion-activated security system.
• The district conducts both announced and unannounced lockdown, lockout and evacuation drills. The staff does a headcount and accounts for each student by name. Law enforcement officers participate in drills and debrief participants afterward. Administrators conduct “tabletop” exercises to strategize various scenarios.
• All staff members, including bus drivers and playground monitors, undergo ongoing safety and security training. This includes a recent active threat “Train the trainer” workshop run by the Westchester County Police, and safety/security workshops offered by PNWBOCES or by law enforcement agencies. This year, eight half days were allotted for professional development, so staff can be refreshed on safety measures. The staff is also trained to identify at-risk students, and if needed, to report such students to the administration. The district also has an Anonymous Alerts Online System in place for staff and students.
Board president Donna Rosenblum, schools Superintendent Dr. Raymond Blanch, and other trustees thanked task force members for their hard work.
“It’s a great feeling to know how much our community cares,” Rosenblum said.
Trustee Lindsay Portnoy said she was especially “inspired” by the students who served on the task force.
To hear Katie Taylor talk about “how communication fostered a sense of community and how students could be empowered to speak for themselves” was “really wonderful,” Portnoy said.