YORKTOWN, N.Y. – Since the New York State Senate passed three companion bills in March that would provide state aid to school districts to hire school resource officers, 11 high school students have been killed by shooters in the United States.
Ten of those deaths happened at Santa Fe High School in Texas on May 18, when a 17-year-old boy armed with a shotgun and a revolver opened fire on his classmates. The other death occurred at Great Mills High School in Maryland on March 20. Though the 17-year-old boy killed a classmate, he was quickly confronted by a school resource officer, Blaine Gaskill. The two exchanged fire before the shooter turned the gun on himself. Gaskill was credited with preventing more casualties and bringing the incident to a quick end.
Another school resource officer was lauded for his actions on May 16, when a 19-year-old former student entered Dixon High School in Illinois armed with a rifle. The alleged gunman didn’t get far before Officer Mark Dallas confronted him. According to police, the former student ran away from the school, firing shots at the officer. Dallas returned fire, wounding the 19-year-old with non-life-threatening injuries.
Surrounded by school administrators, police officers, and elected officials on both sides of the aisle, State Sen. Terrence Murphy (R-Yorktown), speaking Friday at Lakeland Copper Beech Middle School, urged his colleagues in the Assembly to pass the bills.
“Our state budget it $168 billion and we can’t find money to protect our schools,” Murphy said. “Shameful. Absolutely shameful.”
Murphy’s bill, S7813A, “defines school shootings as terrorism,” enabling authorities to charge a shooting suspect with committing an act of terrorism if they discharge a firearm with 1,000 feet of a school, a place of worship, a business or any gathering of 25 people or more.
State Sen. Patrick Gallivan’s bills, S7811A and S7810A, meanwhile, would expand the definition of school resource officer (SRO) to include a retired police officer, deputy sheriff and state trooper, along with those on active duty, and enable school districts outside of New York City to receive state funding to hire SROs or pay for security services secured through municipal entities. It would also authorize SROs to be armed while on duty, provided they are licensed.
Gallivan’s bills would establish a grant formula to provide every school district with $50,000 for a single SRO, or $20,000 for each SRO hire. The bills would also waive the $30,000 earnings limit for retired government employees, allowing retired officers to be hired without losing their full pension and benefits.
A fourth bill would also provide districts with funds to hire a mental health professional.
Assemblyman Kevin Byrne (R-Mahopac) said these measures have been “caught up in politics.” He called on the Democratic-led Assembly to drop the partisanship and move this forward.
“We only have a few weeks left of session, so this needs to happen,” Byrne said. “And, if it doesn’t happen in the next two weeks, I strongly encourage the Assembly leadership to pull us back. I will come back after session to get this done.”
Dr. George Stone, superintendent of Lakeland Schools, said he was “shocked” to learn that the Assembly has not called for a vote on these bills. The Lakeland district has teamed with the town of Yorktown and Westchester County to put three SROs in its high schools and middle school. The district’s recently approved budget includes funds for five additional SROs.
“I can tell you that there is no greater feeling of reassurance from me as a superintendent than to drive up to our schools and see a police patrol car parked in the front and to know there is a trained, armed, uniformed police officer monitoring the school,” Stone said.
Currently, there are four uniformed Yorktown police officers who work in the schools: at Yorktown High School, Mildred E. Strang Middle School, Lakeland High School and Lakeland Copper Beech Middle School. According to a contract between the Yorktown Police Department and the Lakeland School District, the town pays for 50 percent of the officers’ salaries, overtime, holiday pay, fringe benefits and equipment, and the school districts pay the other half. The exception is at Copper Beech Middle School, where a large percentage of the students live in Cortlandt. For that SRO, the town of Cortlandt pays 25 percent, the town of Yorktown pays 25 percent, and the school district pays 50 percent.
According to the Lakeland contract, each SRO costs the district $111,580 in 2018 and will cost $113,810 in 2019 and $116,100 in 2020.
The police department’s contract with the Yorktown School District was not immediately available.
Lakeland Board of Education President Denise Kness said mental health and security measures have become very costly for local school districts. She urged parents to write to New York State and call on legislators to pass these bills.
“We need funding now,” Kness said. “We need common-sense legislation.”
Yorktown Police Chief Robert Noble said having officers in schools is more than just providing security in a crisis. Officers who students see on a daily basis become a confidant and a friend. Those students then feel more comfortable telling the officer when something is wrong. Noble said Yorktown has made several arrests regarding threats to school buildings.
John LaPlaca, a retired Yorktown police lieutenant and founder of Altaris Consulting Group, works with school districts to bolster their security. He said SROs are always a top recommendation of his.
“Technology does not respond to emergencies; people do,” LaPlaca said.
Yorktown Supervisor Ilan Gilbert, joined by Town Clerk Diana Quast, said his Town Board unanimously supported these measures at its May 22 meeting. Gilbert, a Democrat, said school safety should be a non-partisan issue.
“We don’t have the budget flexibility that the state or the federal government does,” Gilbert said. “We need help from above and I thank the senator for giving us that opportunity.”
Murphy said he is “cautiously optimistic” that New York State will exercise common sense, “for once.”
“Enough’s enough,” Murphy said. “We find billions of dollars to waste in New York State, we should find billions of dollars to harden our schools and make sure our kids come first.”