The names of those chosen to serve on a new school security task force will be made public within days, said the Somers Board of Education Monday.
The decision to form the task force came in the wake of two alleged shooting threats made against the district. Both incidences are being investigated by police.
The district had already been working on safety upgrades such as security vestibules and additional School Resource Officers (SROs).
After the shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., in February, concerned parents pressed the district to take immediate action.
The urgency of the situation is precisely why the district decided to move up the task force’s creation and its upcoming meetings with administrators before school reopens in September, said school officials.
According to Superintendent Dr. Raymond Blanch, close to 50 folks had expressed interest in serving on the task force.
The task force will be made up of 12 members, representing parents, students, and other community members with relevant backgrounds such as law enforcement or school security and mental health, with a focus on children and adolescents. It will also include members of the administration, teaching staff, and each of the district’s four school safety teams.
In June, the school board approved paying school security experts, Altaris Consulting Group, about $8,000 to conduct a safety audit of the district.
Altaris will be providing the task force with its findings, Blanch said.
The task force will first meet on Thursday, July 19, and again on July 26, Aug. 1, and 8.
Additionally, a “town hall” style meeting to discuss safety will be scheduled during the week of Aug. 13, Blanch said. The exact date will be announced on the district’s website and through social media.
Realizing that August is the month when lots of people go away on vacation, the board plans to set up an email address where folks who can’t attend the public input session can put their two cents in.
Sending in comments, suggestions and questions in early will also give school officials time to get their informational ducks in a row.
The email address will be provided shortly on the district’s website.
District officials will touch base with the task force in the beginning of September and hear its recommendations at the school board’s Sept. 18 meeting.
For security reasons, certain details of the district’s safety plan will not be disclosed to the general public.
School re-opens on Sept. 5.
The district already operates under the state’s standardized safety plan.
The task force’s recommendations can exceed, but not change, any of those plan’s requirements, school officials said.
Some recommendations that the district decides to put into effect could take time.
Meanwhile, the installation of security vestibules at Primrose Elementary School and Somers Middle School is set to begin this fall and could take four to six months to complete, said Kenneth Crowley, the district’s assistant superintendent for business.
By the beginning of the school year in 2019, each classroom should also have a phone that connects directly to the police department.
In May, Somers voters overwhelmingly passed the $91.2 million school budget.
The budget allowed for the hiring of two additional SROs, members of the Westchester County Police trained specifically to work in schools.
The SROs will cost the district $266,866, but will cause no tax rate increase because the money is coming from the district’s fund balance.
Previously, the district’s two SROs had to cover four schools. This fall, each building will have its own dedicated officer, a “one-to-one ratio” that makes Somers “a rarity” among the 700 school districts in the state, according to Blanch.
“SROs are not mandated by the state, the superintendent said Monday.
The district had hopes of also having a police vehicle parked at each school, as sort of a visual deterrent, instead of two cars spread among its four buildings. But budgetary constraints on the county level are likely to kibosh that idea, school officials admitted.
On June 1, students reported finding a threatening message was discovered written on a wall in a boy’s bathroom at an unspecified school.
It read: “I am going to shoot up the school” and was followed by a student’s name.
Later, after parents vehemently objected to Blanch’s characterization of the threat as a “horrible adolescent prank,” the superintendent apologized for using the word “prank” and promised them, and the school board, that the district takes every threat very seriously.
In May, a 16-year-old youth from Chappaqua was charged with making a terroristic threat and aggravated harassment for allegedly texting a girl in Somers that he thought they should “go back” to her school and “kill everyone.”The text also read: “When I’m 18 I’m going to buy an ar15 and shoot everyone at the school (sic).”
The girl previously attended Somers High School.
That, and the June case, are still being probed by authorities and further details have not been released.
According to Westchester County Police Sgt. Amery Bernhardt, SROs are in constant contact with school staff.
Reacting to criticism that the district was acting too slowly, Trustee Joseph Marra noted that: “People want immediate action, but we’re not (security) experts; we don’t want to act hastily and do something that’s not going to be for the benefit of the kids and the safety of the school.”
Forming the task force and hiring Altaris, which Marra called “a very competent and respected organization,” to do the safety audit shows that the district is hearing the community loud and clear, Marra said.
“So now we’re going to have time to go over their recommendations and see what needs to be done. In conjunction with members of the community, administration, the teachers …,” he added.
“Everyone will have a voice,” said Trustee Lindsay Portnoy.
At the board’s reorganization meeting Monday, Trustee Donna Rosenblum was elected president and Trustee Joseph A. Marra, vice president.
Trustees present were Marra, Rosenblum, Portnoy, and Ifay Chang. Not in attendance were trustees Michael D’Anna, MaryRose Joseph, and newcomer Heidi Cambareri.
In the audience was former board president Serena Meyer, who lost her bid for re-election in May.
Meyer did not comment during the public portion of the meeting.
Portnoy, who was elected to the board in 2017, was nominated for the vice president’s spot by Ifay Chang, but declined, saying she would support Marra, an attorney who has served on the board for five years, and she looked forward to the opportunity to run for this position during the next election in 2019.
“I’m very flattered,” said Portnoy. “It’s been an exciting year and I’ve learned a great deal, and while I’d like to accept, I’m going to defer to Joe (Marra).”