AMSTERDAM — Parents are calling for swift action and better communication following a rash of recent threats against schools in the Greater Amsterdam School District. District officials agree and are planning to get families involved in discussions about how to curb further incidents while impressing upon students that one impulsive action can have long-lasting consequences.
“I’m so frustrated,” Andreea Prusky said. “I have been a pretty active voice in Amsterdam for the 10 years now we have lived here. This year especially I’ve been really vocal about my concerns.”
Recurring school discipline issues have spiraled out of control, according to Prusky. Derogatory comments, insults and fighting are especially common at the middle school, she said.
The biggest concern is the frequency of threats of school violence posted on social media by district students throughout the school year.
Local law enforcement have charged four juveniles with making a terroristic threat, a felony, over the past two months in connection to three different incidents involving threats to Amsterdam schools. The two most recent incidents occurred in just the last week.
Students and parents already strained by the impacts of the pandemic are being pushed over the edge by the spate of school threats, according to Prusky, who said one of her children told her this week they were afraid to go to school.
The lack of definite answers from the school district as to what actions will be taken to stop the recurring threats is only adding to those concerns, she said.
“They have not addressed in detail what they are going to do, they just say they are going to take care of it,” Prusky said. “I have three kids in this school district and I will be damned if one of my kids makes the news for being a victim.”
Jennifer Miller-Effina, another district parent, agreed that communication surrounding the ongoing incidents needs to improve. The district’s practice of only sending notifications over the ParentSquare app to families of the named school when threats are made has caused confusion.
“When I’m unaware of what to expect from police or the school district or what actions they may be taking, it causes me to be anxious. When I am aware, then I’m at ease,” Miller-Effina said.
Both Prusky and Miller-Effina believe teachers, administrators and police are doing their best to respond to incidents as they occur, but a more proactive approach is urgently needed. Parents should be part of the process of developing possible solutions and should be informed of what they can do to help curb issues.
“We all need to work together,” Miller-Effina said.
Superintendent Richard Ruberti agrees with their points and is taking several steps to address the concerns.
“Every threat we’ve received we’ve treated as credible until it is deemed not to be by law enforcement. Each threat receives the same level of attention and response,” Ruberti said. “Law enforcement has done a tremendous job holding students accountable, but a lot of what has happened has been reactive.”
To take a more proactive approach, Ruberti said district officials are stressing to students and parents the long-term consequences of making threats against schools.
“Students have access to social media like they’ve never had before. They can take a picture, post it and not think about the long-term consequences something impulsive can have,” Ruberti said. “It has to be treated with great responsibility and caution. The internet is not written in pencil, it’s written in ink and it’s out there for the rest of your life.”
District administrators and local law enforcement officials are currently organizing student assemblies that will be held in-person and virtually to impart the message to students that posts they make on social media can have lasting consequences in the real world.
Students found to make threats against schools over social media are typically charged and subject to a Person In Need of Supervision proceedings through family court. Determinations can place children under monitoring through the probation department or can result in foster care or social service facility placements.
Additional discipline by the school district is determined through a superintendent’s hearing. The hearing can result in the child’s suspension from school for up to one calendar year. Although that is the maximum length of suspension possible, Ruberti said kids don’t necessarily return to school whenever that time is up.
Children are typically monitored and their behavior evaluated over the course of the suspension. That information is used during transition meetings to determine whether students are actually prepared to return to school before they are allowed to reenter the district.
“The goal is always to not repeat the action, to find ways to express concerns you may have in other ways to proactively address issues in the future,” Ruberti said.
Ruberti confirmed that none of the district students charged in connection with school threats this academic year have returned to school.
Additionally, the district is working with law enforcement and city officials to organize parent forums to hear concerns and gather suggestions about how to end the recurring cycle of school threats. The sessions will also give officials an opportunity to encourage families to talk about the recent incidents and the repercussions.
The assemblies and forums are expected to take place around mid-February.
To better respond to student behavior issues internally, Ruberti has proposed the creation of a full-time dean of students at the high school and middle school. The new position would be involved in addressing disciplinary problems at the secondary level and would be accessible to students maintaining a visible presence in hallways.
Ruberti is working with the GASD Board of Education on creating and filling the position during the current school year. School Board President Nellie Bush anticipates calling a special meeting in the coming weeks in part to discuss the superintendent’s new strategies.
One immediate change officials will make is notifying all parents districtwide of any school threats should any further incidents occur.
“We understand with threats parents want to know throughout the district. If we have any more, they will be sent to the entire district,” Ruberti said.
Although social media has undoubtedly contributed to the ongoing incidents, no one seemed certain of what has caused the rash of threats in the school district. Stresses of the pandemic, problems at home, mental health struggles and other issues were also pointed to as likely contributors.
“The majority of students are very well behaved. It’s the few that stand out that make it seem like it’s bad for everybody and that’s not the case,” Bush said. “Children are very resilient. When they start acting out there is a reason for it.”
SUPPORT FOR STUDENTS
The district has added student support service positions over the past year to provide academic and social-emotional interventions that may help address problems over time, but Bush said community involvement must be part of the answer.
“It’s everybody’s responsibility, not just the school district,” Bush said.
The frequency of the threats could be triggering students to copy the behavior and their recurrence could in turn cause students or parents to take them less seriously, Ruberti acknowledged.
“I do worry about that part,” Ruberti said. “The number of incidents sometimes could spark more or could have people feeling more like they are not real or a perceived threat so they are not taken seriously. That is why I want to work proactively to address these situations so students understand the long-term consequences of such actions.”
Ruberti was adamant that the district will continue to treat any threats of school violence seriously and urged students and parents to do the same by reporting any concerning behavior.
While the district is heeding the call of parents to take proactive steps to try to end the rash of school threats, Prusky questioned why more urgent action to stop the escalating problem had not already been taken.
“This protocol should have been in place after the first threat, not five,” Prusky said. “When is there going to be urgency to step up and say enough is enough? Our kids have enough to worry about.”
Reach Ashley Onyon at [email protected] or @AshleyOnyon on Twitter.