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HOW SAFE ARE WESTCHESTER’S SCHOOLS?

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by Kristen J. Gough

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A few years ago, a police car parked in front of a school might evoke much concern. Today, a police car is a more comforting sight — a sign that the police are actively involved in keeping children safe while they’re learning. A close relationship between schools and local police departments is just part of the immense puzzle that school administrators and legislators are piecing together to create the safest environment possible for Westchester County’s schools. While safety has always been an issue for schools, it has never been more difficult to prepare for every possible threat. Rosemary Lee, supervisor in the Center for Professional Development in Southern BOCES (Boards of Cooperative Educational Services), explains that Westchester County has unique security concerns because of Indian Point and our close proximity to New York City. As a liaison between 35 lower Westchester school districts and county and state officials on health and safety issues, Lee helps school districts develop emergency plans unique to each school. "Schools are constantly making decisions and facing new threats," says Lee. School safety legislation is constantly in flux as schools encounter additional threats. In November 2000, the federal government passed legislation requiring all school districts to come up with detailed emergency response plans and to train staff in violence prevention. The SAVE law, or Safer Schools Against Violence in Education, was in response to the dramatic increase in school shootings piqued by the deadly attack at Columbine High School. All districts were required to submit a comprehensive safety plan, developed by teams including school board members, principals, teachers, parents, and local emergency responders in police and fire departments. Ironically, school districts were required to comply with the law by July 1, 2001, about two months before the terrorist attacks of September 11 brought school security into question once again. As schools sought to ensure each student’s safety on 9/11, school administrators realized what emergency procedures worked and where schools fell short. "9/11 was a wake up call," says Peter Lisi, superintendent at Pocantico Hills, the county’s smallest district with 360 students in grades K through 8. Linda E. Kelly, school superintendent in New Rochelle, one of Westchester’s larger districts with 10,763 students, agrees. Although both believe students and parents were reassured by their schools’ staff’s quick and sensitive response to students’ concerns, both acknowledged lapses in communication with outside resources. Today, the U.S. Department of Education has protocols in place for schools, which correspond to the national risk of attack color code levels distributed by the Department of Homeland Security. The New York State Department of Education advises schools in complying with the national recommendations. While the state notifies schools of a change in the risk level, superintendent Kelly says she has usually already heard it on the news before she gets to work. She can rattle off the procedures for each color code level as quickly as she might list her phone number. School administrators drill staff and students so that they are just as familiar with what to do in an emergency. Superintendent Kelly points out day-to-day security procedures that have changed as well. Other than the main entrance, all outside school doors are locked and visitors must check in and wear identification badges. The New Rochelle school district employs security personnel to monitor the various facilities during school hours and at afterschool events. Superintendent Lisi describes other adjustments, such as upgrading door locks and increasing outdoor lighting, among other changes that make schools more secure. As schools continue to prepare their students and staff for emergencies, the threat of limited communication remains — both with parents and with other school officials. U.S. Representative Nita Lowey, D-Harrison, a member of the House Select Committee on Homeland Security, has been working toward better emergency communication in Westchester’s schools. Under her direction, and with the involvement of County Executive Andrew J. Spano, county officials have been reviewing new technology that would make rapid communication possible during emergencies. "At this point our concerns are technologically based," says Dr. Donald Antonecchia, superintendent of the Pleasantville school district and incoming president of the Southern Westchester Chief Administrators Association, which represents 39 public and private school districts. His association, with the support of Rep. Lowey, works alongside county and state officials to develop both better communication methods and a source from which all New York schools would receive information. "We need a way to contact schools immediately with clear direction from a centralized source," says Dr. Antonecchia. "That source needs to be centralized through the county and the state. Right now it’s not as tight as we would like it and everyone recognizes that and is working on it." School officials want to avoid the confusion and lack of information that occurred in January of this year. A New York student received a warning in an Internet chat room of a "Columbine-like" attack at a school in the state. The state police, with only two hours to inform schools before the deadline in the warning, immediately informed local police departments and the State Department of Education. For Superintendent Lisi, the first warning came when he saw police cars parked outside the school. Every school received a fax or email from the State Department of Education informing them of a threat, yet many superintendents were unaware of what was going on until after the deadline had passed. "Most [school officials] aren’t sitting around next to the fax machine," says Dr. Antonecchia. "At this point, we consider ourselves doing a needs assessment," says Anthony Sutton, deputy commissioner of the County’s Department of Emergency Services, who works with Dr. Antonecchia and other school officials from Northern Westchester/Putnam BOCES and Southern Westchester BOCES. Recently, officials met with representatives from Nextel and Cingular to consider products and services that might benefit the county. However, Sutton is quick to comment that there needs to be various methods of communicating with schools so that if one doesn’t work, others would be available. "What if the cell phones wouldn’t work? Or the Internet?" he says. "We’re looking for several communication pathways that don’t rely on the same infrastructure." And deciding on a communication system is not the only consideration; officials also need to consider how to fund the costs.

What Parents Can Do to Help Schools Keep Kids Safe 1. Make sure that all the information on your child’s emergency card is accurate. Update changes in cell phone numbers and business addresses. 2. Read all school newsletters and notices sent home by your child’s school. 3. Comply with all of the school’s security procedures. Use the main entrance of the school and check in at the office. Just because you’re a parent doesn’t mean the safety rules don’t apply to you. 4. In an emergency, don’t rush to your child’s school. Additional traffic around the area could create problems. 5. Support your school’s budget proposals. Some budget increases go toward security measures. 6. Volunteer to help work on school emergency response plans.

Copies of your school’s emergency response plan are available at most school’s main offices.


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