Niskayuna school officials look to calm tension after school threats

Forum held on safety issues
Niskayuna Superintendent Dr. Cosimo Tangorra, Jr., gives a presentation to crowd of parents and students during a forum Monday.
Niskayuna Superintendent Dr. Cosimo Tangorra, Jr., gives a presentation to crowd of parents and students during a forum Monday.

NISKAYUNA — A panel of Niskayuna school officials sought to assure parents they are responding to a litany of concerns from students and families that arose after recent school threats and an hourslong lockdown at the high school.

Parents and students at a safety forum Monday night were far less combative than at a similar safety forum earlier this month, when parents and students aired their frustration as that meeting devolved into a shouting match among parents, administrators and students.

District officials also asserted greater control over the meeting, bringing in a communications specialists from the Capital Region BOCES to moderate the panel discussion with school principals, school Superintendent Cosimo Tangorra Jr. and Niskayuna Deputy Police Chief Michael Stevens.

The communications specialist at the start of the meeting implored those present to “please refrain from interrupting” and asked everyone to maintain “civility and respect.”

With less frustration and contention infusing the meeting, district officials outlined areas where they are seeking to improve on the district’s safety protocols. To address concerns over students urinating in high school classes during an over 5-hour-long lockdown last month, each classroom will be supplied with emergency kits. Teachers will be trained and equipped with checklists to ensure consistency from room to room in the case of an emergency. Administrators are also working to improve the district’s public announcement systems, particularly at the high school, where students have said they couldn’t hear key announcements during the recent lockdown.

But Tangorra also pointed to the importance of creating a more positive school culture, where all students feel supported, a task that requires an increased emphasis on counselors and social workers.

“We want to make sure all the work we are doing is for that one purpose of creating an environment where every student in this district feels welcome, feels a part of the community, feels there are adults in the school community care about them,” Tangorra said. “Above all else make sure we are doing our best to be kind to each other.”

Tangorra said the district planned to bring in outside experts to conduct a security and threat assessment after Jan. 1.

“It may be time for us to consider bringing in professionals and have them help us work through these processes,” Tangorra said.

About 100 people attended the meeting, less than half the size of the crowd at the Nov. 7 forum, where parents and students expressed outrage over how the lockdown unfolded. But little is likely to change in how Niskayuna police carry out a search of a school in the event of a threat. Stevens, the deputy chief, said the searches are extensive operations and that police need to take their time to ensure nothing is missed.

“Once we have control over a situation, if we slow down we are less likely to miss something,” Stevens said. “And the margin of error in something like this is really none, because if we were to miss a weapon then we would have a bigger problem on our hands.”

It’s still an open question whether the district will opt to bring a police presence directly into the school as a school resource officer, a position many districts around the region have added in the last year. Tangorra said it was up to the community to decide whether to add a resource officer, but he said the position is meant to strengthen the relationship between the school and the community and should not be viewed as a position that will increase safety or take out a threat.

“I have said multiple times these are questions that will have to be answered by the community,” Tangorra said of a school resource officer and other measures to “harden” the school, such as metal detectors. “What I have failed to say is the most important group in that community are the students who are walking the hallways.”

Most parents who addressed administrators on Monday thanked them for the work they do and pressed the continued importance of communicating with parents and continuing to improve safety measures. Some also expressed exasperation and confusion about what was driving a recent spate of threats against Niskayuna schools.

“Six incidents in six months in the Niskayuna community,” David Klein, a longtime area resident and parent of a high-schooler pointed out at the meeting. “This is crazy, this is stuff we never thought would happen. Why is it happening in Niskayuna?”

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