A panel of professionals from education, mental health, law enforcement, journalism and activism provided practical suggestions for improving school safety in a discussion on “Keeping our children safe from gun violence in our schools.”
Hosted by the League of Women Voters of Saratoga, Schenectady and Albany counties, the panel was held at Ballston Spa High School in Saratoga County. Despite frigid temperatures and blasting wind that equaled -7 degrees, about 150 community members attended.
When asked by moderator and veteran Albany journalist Susan Arbetter for specific ideas that people can put into action, panelists responded with viable “wish list” of ideas to make schools safer:
- “Preparation, prevention, response and recovery” said Kathleen Donahue, NYSUT vice president overseeing school safety issues for the union;
- Money for resource officers, said Oliver Robinson, superintendent of Shenendehowa School District in Saratoga County;
- Networking as parents, said Karen Parlapiano, region director for Northeastern Region PTA;
- Having a threat-assessment program for every school, said New York State Trooper Kevin McMahon;
- Providing media literacy training as part of the existing curriculum, said Rosemary Armao, journalism professor at University of Albany;
- Providing access to mental health care, said James Kelleher, psychiatrist and chief medical officer at Four Winds Hospital in Saratoga County.
- Letting elected officials know how you feel about gun control to keep schools safe, said Aimee Allaud, elections and government specialist for the New York State League of Women Voters.
“Nothing — NOTHING — is more important to educators that the safety of the children who come to our schools,” said Donahue, who was a teacher for 30 years.
She noted that, on Sept. 11, 2001, during terrorist attacks on New York City, teachers, school-related professionals, teacher aides, administrators and bus drivers made sure children got home safely.
“There was not a child injured or lost during that tragedy,” she said.
Educators care about both the physical and emotional safety of students, Donahue said. “There are a number of things that can be done collectively, and a lot of procedural things that can be put in place that don’t cost money.”
She said every school is required to have a building and district-wide safety plan; regular evaluation must be held to assess the plan. Educators need to make sure schools are carrying the required number and different types of drills – for fire, lockdown, leaving early, etc.
State and local agencies must be involved to devote attention to the community preparedness protocol. Communication amongst staff, parents, the community and first-responders needs to be ongoing.
Donohue also advocated for schoolwide programs to reduce bullying, and for more after-school programs. Empathy, diversity and tolerance, she said, can be woven into the core subjects.
“The standards we incorporate into the curriculum need to include individuals and the diverse population,” Donahue said.
Increased funding is needed to address the mental health needs of students who need to have available school social workers, counselors and psychologists.
This is where staff, students and families must work together in earnest, because information gathering is so important to helping a student in need, Donahue said.
“The more information you gather, and the earlier you address it, the easier it is to put a person on the path” to wellness, and to be able to handle difficulties, she said.
“Identifying kids who might be at risk is not as easy as one tell-tale sign,” added Kelleher, “but, over time, it can be flagged.”
Spending money on mental health care, he said, “is an investment in our communities and our citizens.”
Kelleher said one-in-five adults has a mental illness, and only one-third to one-half seek care because of stigma, lack of providers or lack of money or insurance to get care.
Robinson said that while there is not enough money in the Executive Budget proposal for resource officers throughout the state, money could be used to train school personnel. He lamented the loss of resource officers in the Shenendehowa District because they provided students with the opportunity to have a different type of relationship with law enforcement. These officers were not there to intimidate, but provided lessons to students on bullying, Internet safety, harassment, stranger danger, drinking and driving, and more.
Robinson voiced concern about making schools like “correctional institutions.” Incorporating learning about issues of concern, including projects like the Dignity for All Students Act, is important, he said.
“We label – and stigmatize – because it’s different,” he said.
Just last week, NYSUT applauded legislative action reforming New York’s gun control laws. “In memory of the beloved children and heroic teachers in Sandy Hook, in Columbine and in other places where gun violence created almost unimaginable pain and suffering, we praise Albany’s leadership for working expeditiously and collaboratively on this very important issue,” said NYSUT President Richard C. Iannuzzi.