School Security – Schools Weigh Safety Efforts

By RICK KARLIN , Staff writer
First published: Thursday, April 22, 1999

Schools weigh safety efforts
Although crisis tactics are taught, some doubt the possibility of preventing a Colorado-type shooting.

Go to a typical Capital Region high school and you’ll likely see administrators with cell phones in their pockets and crisis management guides on their bookshelves.

Like school officials throughout the nation, educators here have been on edge since last year’s spate of massacres. There have been “armed intruder drills” and workshops on how to spot potential mass killers and avert tragedies. Some schools have secret code words given to teachers in the event of a “lockdown,” when students are to be kept in their classrooms.

“We are all very frightened about guns, and if we hear things, we are pretty much on top of that,” said Kathryn Martin, a social worker with the Capital Region BOCES, who helps offer safety and anti-violence training. But all the drills and caution in the world can’t really prepare people for the kind of tragedy that took place Tuesday in Littleton , Colo. , when two youths tore through Columbine High School on a shooting and bombing spree that left 15 dead, including the killers.

The incident marked the eighth time since October 1997 that U.S. youths had taken up arms against classmates and teachers.

If Tuesday’s killings carried one lesson, local educators say, it’s that schools should never, ever, assume that “it can’t happen here.” “We try to prepare, but there is no way you can really prepare for these tragedies,” Martin said.

“There is no way of getting away from these things. These are social issues that pervade the entire country,” said Blaise Salerno, superintendent of the Guilderland school district.

Moreover, despite the heightened vigilance that has taken hold during the last year, security experts and psychologists alike are wondering if schools are doing all they can to prevent similar catastrophes in the future.

“We’re too complacent, as a society, as a whole,” said Joe La Sorsa, a security consultant and former Secret Service agent in Saratoga County . La Sorsa last winter met with a group of school superintendents in the Glens Falls area to discuss security measures they could take beyond the basics, such as hall monitors and video cameras.

Among his suggestions: Pay close attention to behavior patterns by kids that could signal potential violence, such as killing animals, constant talk of racial hatred or wearing military garb.

The school officials, La Sorsa recalled, seemed concerned, but they explained that taking such measures can spark lawsuits and other administrative problems. Many of the educators complained that their hands were tied by rules and procedures designed to protect the rights of students.

“If they ask too many questions, it’s opening up a Pandora’s box,” La Sorsa said.

The fact is, spotting potential mass killers simply isn’t the top priority at most school districts, said Theodore Feinberg, North Colonie ‘s senior school psychologist, who chairs an emergency assistance team of experts who help people deal with mass tragedies.

Gov. George Pataki has started a school violence task force, and there have been numerous calls from teachers unions and others for tougher laws on school discipline. Mayor Jerry Jennings on Wednesday announced the establishment of an Albany Fund for Safe Schools/Safe Communities, which will initially be used to help Littleton in some way, though Jennings said he hopes it will be an continuing resource to support youth violence prevention programs in schools, community centers and day care centers throughout the Capital Region.

But paying close attention to all of the students, all of the time, in a given school is a tall order. Nor are schools the only place where such problems need to be addressed.

“It’s not just a school problem,” said Dave Ernst, spokesman for the New York State School Boards Association. “It’s a community problem, it’s a family problem and it’s a law enforcement problem.”

“There is no safety zone,” added Feinberg.

Contributions to the Albany Fund for Safe Schools/Safe Communities can be sent to Key Bank at 60 State Street , Albany 12207, or deposited at any Key Bank branch.

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