Niskayuna parents, students air frustration with threats, lockdowns

'We don’t have the luxury of judging the seriousness or lack of seriousness when we find those notes'
Niskayuna High School students Emily Chotkowski, left, and Ava Giagni get emotional during a forum on threats and lockdowns.
Niskayuna High School students Emily Chotkowski, left, and Ava Giagni get emotional during a forum on threats and lockdowns.

A forum at Niskayuna High School on Wednesday night set up to address questions about an hourslong lockdown Monday at the high school devolved into a shouting match among parents, students and administrators.

Parents interrupted other parents, students cut off parents who were speaking, and parents shouted down students as the students pleaded with administrators to answer their questions. Ultimately, the meeting was cut a few minutes short amid a cascade of interruptions.

But the hundreds of parents and students gathered at the high school auditorium sent a clear message that a series of violent threats and the police responses that have followed in recent weeks have caused stress and strain on the district’s families.

Students and parents recalled the fear and uncertainty they faced after a school announcement Monday informed students that the lockdown – put in place after a student found a note in the high school that threatened a school shooting and named a specific target – was “not a drill.”

Students texted “I love yous” to parents, and some have said they feared there was an active shooter in the building.

“My daughter is texting ‘Dad I love you,’ she’s texting her little brother ‘I love you,’ and she doesn’t say that,” parent Todd Sardella said during the forum. “These kids thought there was a shooter in this school.

Superintendent Cosimo Tangorra Jr. also tried to send a clear message during the forum: Student safety is his top priority, even if that means the students are put in an uncomfortable position.

Tangorra said he had heard concerns from parents and others that students were left to urinate in trash cans while stuck in classrooms during the lockdown, which started shortly before 1 p.m. and lasted over five hours. But he also said some of those inconveniences were unavoidable as police searched the school and ensured that all of the students were safe to be dismissed.

“There is no plan, no plan has been presented to me to do anything different than what was done on Monday,” Tangorra said. “When there is a prolonged lockdown, know now that no different procedure is in the planning process or being put in place.”

He did say the district had ordered curtains and buckets and planned to create kits with food and water that would be placed in classrooms in case of another lengthy lockdown.

Parents at the forum raised a litany of concerns about what unfolded at the school on Monday: Why did it take so long to clear the school? Why shelter in classrooms instead of run and hide? Why were kids sent out to walk home after it was dark and raining?

But the parents’ comments were also often in conflict with one another. While some raised concerns over access to the bathrooms, others said they were fine with their kids not getting to the bathroom if it meant they were kept safe.

“I’m fine my son went to the bathroom in a recycling bin,” one woman said. “He’s alive.”

One parent asked whether the district was considering adding a school resource officer, as other districts around the region have done this fall. Tangorra said it was an option the district has explored and that ultimately it was up to the school board but that he personally felt it wasn’t necessary.

“I don’t want armed folks in the buildings, that’s the community’s decision — not mine,” Tangorra said.

Niskayuna Deputy Police Chief Michael Stevens was also on hand to describe the police response. He told parents his top priority was the safety of students and staff, and that he didn’t care if how he carried out that mission made parents of students angry with him.

District officials reiterated that all threats must be treated as legitimate. John Rickert, the high school principal, said the school takes each and every threat of violence seriously, calling police in to investigate.

“We don’t have the luxury of judging the seriousness or lack of seriousness when we find those notes, we treat all of those notes as a serious threat,” Rickert said. “Every note of a threatening nature to us is treated in a serious nature.”

The forum was scheduled in response to the lockdown at the high school on Monday. But by Wednesday evening, another threat caused disruption to the school day at Van Antwerp Middle School.

Officials placed the school under a shelter in place – which limits movement within the school building – after finding a note making a bomb threat. At least twice this school year, Iroquois Middle School has been disrupted by threats, including one that delayed student dismissal. And last week, a 17-year-old Niskayuna High School student was arrested and charged with a felony count of making a terroristic threat after allegedly posting “attack Niskayuna High School” on Facebook. That threat was dealt with while students were out of school.

Tangorra also said he planned visit the district middle schools this week to communicate to students the seriousness of making threats and that they can result in legal troubles. He also implored parents to reinforce that message with their own families.

“Students need to understand how severe this is, this disruption of the educational process will not stand,” Tangorra said.

Dozens of students turned out for the forum, but they were largely dissatisfied by how they were treated by administrators and parents present. As Tangorra took questions from parents, a group of students tried to draw his attention but were not called on. At one point, a student stomped down the middle aisle of the auditorium and with tears in her eyes to demand that the students be heard.

“We weren’t physically hurt, we were mentally hurt,” high school sophomore Emily Chotkowski said of the lockdown experience.

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