CAPITAL REGION – A day after a gunman killed 19 students and two teachers at an elementary school in Texas, school districts throughout the Capital Region on Wednesday sought to ease parents’ concerns about student safety while highlighting available mental health resources for those who are struggling to cope.
School districts throughout the region released statements condemning the violence and detailing available resources to help students cope with Tuesday’s mass shooting in Uvalde, Texas, where an 18-year-old gunman killed 19 fourth graders and a pair of teachers at Robb Elementary School in the worst school shooting the country has seen since the Sandy Hook massacre in 2012.
Schenectady City School District Superintendent Anibal Soler Jr., in a statement released Tuesday night, said district teachers would be setting aside time to “provide space and opportunity to have necessary and important conversations” about the incident on Wednesday, and that guidance counselors and social workers would also be available to students.
The district did not return multiple requests seeking interviews with district officials to discuss exactly what resources were made available to students and how teachers are addressing students following a second mass shooting in as many weeks.
Earlier this month, a racist gunman traveled halfway across New York to a Buffalo supermarket, where he murdered 10 Black individuals and wounded three others. The 18-year-old gunman was inspired by “replacement theory,” an idea pushed by far-right provocateurs and embraced by some local lawmakers, that states white people are being replaced by people of color.
“In my lifetime, these horrible acts of gun violence in schools and in various communities have become all too common,” Soler said in a statement. “We cannot become numb or ignore when these incidents happen. We need to lean on one another and continue to work collectively to ensure the safety and wellness of our students, our school communities and each other.”
Elsewhere in the region, school superintendents offered similar condemnation about the worst mass-shooting event in the U.S. this year. The Buffalo supermarket shooting, which occurred less than two weeks ago on May 14, was previously the worst.
The Saratoga Springs City School District released a lengthy statement ensuring parents of school safety protocols and guidance on how best to talk with children.
Advice includes reassuring children that they are safe, maintaining a normal routine and making sure all conversations are “developmentally appropriate” for children.
“I want to assure you that the safety of our students and staff is our top priority, and our school district has a comprehensive safety plan to help avoid tragedies like this,” Superintendent Michael Patton said in a statement. “As a school district, we are always looking for ways that we can improve and create a safe and welcoming environment for our students, staff, and families.”
Shenendehowa Central School District’s Superintendent L. Oliver Robinson called on political leaders to enact policy changes following Tuesday’s shooting.
“Let’s use this to advocate — rather demand — that the politicians at the federal level begin representing and reflecting the demands of the people when it comes to gun laws, mental health, and other key policy changes,” Robinson wrote in a statement. “Let’s use this as an opportunity to sharpen our efforts to keep our schools safe.”
Robinson’s statement detailed how annual safety audits help keep the school districts’ 13 buildings safe by identifying needed security measures, including locks and surveillance cameras; evaluating patterns of student safety concerns both at the school and on social media; and identifying the ways in which school staff can be trained to keep community members safe.
Extra police presence was on hand Wednesday in the Stillwater Central School District.
“We remain vigilant with our safety measures around campus, in fact today we have welcomed additional patrols from the Saratoga County Sheriff’s Department as well as Stillwater PD to be visible around campus,” wrote Superintendent Patricia Morris. The superintendent added that a school resource officer, cameras, secured entries and safety drills are in place to protect the school community.
School resource officers were added to the Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake Central School District and the Scotia-Glenville Central School District in January, according to Glenville Police Chief Stephen V. Janik. Those resource officers are fully uniformed, fully armed and undergo annual trainings to learn scientific methods for going into schools and identifying threats as quickly as possible, according to Janik.
Still, if Janik had all the funding in the world, the police chief said he’d put more money into mental health resources.
“I think there needs to be more energy put into the mental health aspect of at least trying to recognize the warning signs,” Janik said. “We have to pay attention to the triggers. We have to pay attention to what is going on with them physically and mentally. We currently have a system, but is that system completely working, or does more need to be done?”
Ken Slentz, superintendent in the Ballston Spa Central School District, emphasized the need to support young people.
“For those of us who have or who provide care for children, it is certainly worth giving each of them an extra-long hug tonight in light of the events that took place in Texas on Tuesday,” wrote Slentz. “As we await the facts about what may have caused this high school student to commit such an unthinkable act, it is critical that we once again remind our children and ourselves to not let any observation of the abnormal go unspoken. We know that many of our students are feeling the ongoing pressures from the pandemic, pressures from social media, pressures from peers, and pressures from countless other sources. And we know that while a number of our students are adjusting and seeking and receiving support to deal with these pressures, others simply are not.”
Teachers and staff in Duanesburg Central School District were asked to be “extra vigilant” about students expressing signs of distress and anything else out of the ordinary.
“We also advised parents to take care in exposing students to news and conversations about these incidents and we sent them resources regarding talking to young students about death,” said Superintendent James Niedermeier.
Niedermeier and Mohonasen Central School District Superintendent Shannon Shine both said they didn’t see large absences among staff or students Wednesday.
“I would like to believe the reason for this is that students and faculty/staff have excellent support systems right here in school,” Shine said. “At times such as this, it is more evident than ever that Mohonasen is a family and families take care of one another.”
Shine also sent a letter to staff and families sharing various resources the district has.
“Please know that conversations about events like this at school will be in an age-appropriate manner and that adults are always monitoring how students are doing and when support may be needed,” the email stated.
Niskayuna Central School District posted a message to staff, students and families on its website, noting various resources available as well as that officers would be at school buildings throughout the day.
However, the district was unable to provide a teacher or counselor for The Gazette to talk to, according to an email from the district spokesperson Roberto LoBianco.
Amsterdam High School Assistant Principal AnneMarie Giles said there seemed to be a heightened awareness among adults at school on Wednesday, even though the day progressed without any obvious changes from the one prior.
Interim Principal Bryan Wood led the school in a moment of silence for the students and teachers killed in Texas. Superintendent Richard Ruberti notified students and staff districtwide that resources were available for anyone having a hard time.
The district is already focused on improving school safety to ensure all buildings are secure and only accessible through a single entry point. There was no additional police presence in the district beyond school resource officers.
“We hope it never happens, but have to be prepared to make sure our students and staff are safe,” Giles said of safety measures.
Giles joined a hallway conversation with a few students talking in disbelief about the mass shooting happening at an elementary school. The conversation was a seemingly natural reaction by kids who wanted to get their feelings out. She reminded them her door was always open if they wanted to talk after the brief exchange.
Otherwise, it was a quiet day with a number of students out of the building on two scheduled field trips.
“It’s sad that this has almost become the norm. When it happens everybody is shocked and devastated, but not as outraged as the first time it happened,” Giles said. “It’s heartbreaking that school is not the safe place that it was when I went to school and I was younger.”
Gloversville Enlarged School District Superintendent David Halloran issued a public statement Tuesday describing the security level in his school district.
“Please know the safety and well being of your children is our absolute highest priority in Gloversville Enlarged School District,” Halloran wrote in his statement distributed on the district’s Facebook page. “We have an armed Safety Officer with unparalleled law enforcement experience and a School Resource Officer with the Gloversville Police Department working in concert with our administration to ensure we are always vigilant in our commitment to returning students and staff safely to their loved ones each and every day. We appreciate the trust you put in us to nurture and protect your precious children. We mourn alongside the victims and families ofthese two recent abhorrent acts against humanity. As a society, we must simply find a way to be better than this.”
On Wednesday GESD issued a statement indicating that June 1 will now be a regular school day for high school students, due to the decision by New York state to cancel the U.S. History & Government Regents Exam that was to have been held June 1. State officials have said the test was canceled due to a question on the exam now being considered potentially traumatizing or “triggering” for students after the mass shooting in Buffalo.
Fulton County Sheriff Richard Giardino said currently there are no county sheriff’s deputies detailed as resource officers at any of Fulton County’s school districts.
“After several years of trying, we finally got approval for a federal grant for a school resource officer, but then COVID hit and Mayfield [Central School District] school said ‘Look, we’re not going to know if we’re going to have money or how long school would be closed’, so they decided not to fund the matching part, so they didn’t pay for it,” Giardino said. “So, we got approval from the feds, [MCSD] withdrew, once they withdrew the county said ‘we’re not going to pay for it, if the school’s not, then we’re not.'”
At one time Giardino said his department had a special patrol officer at GESD’s Meco Elementary School, but the contract only lasted one year, and was not renewed.
“The only thing we do now is the day patrol’s are told to patrol the [school] parking lots and walk through some of the schools when they have time,” Giardino said. “They don’t do it every day, but I told our deputies yesterday, in light of the shooting, I wanted them to go and check on the schools, so there’s an appearance, so if anything happened, they would see us.”
Montgomery County Sheriff Jeff Smith said all of the school district’s in Montgomery County have on-site law enforcement protection on a daily basis.
“In Montgomery County every school district has an armed officer present,” Smith said. “The sheriff’s office handles Amsterdam High School and the Fonda-Fultonville Central School. The Amsterdam Police Department handles Lynch Middle School.”
Smith said the village police departments in Canajoharie, Fort Plain and St. Johnsville each have police officers detailed to the school districts in those villages. He said the school districts by contract pay for all of the salary and benefits for each of the sheriff’s deputies and police officers at the school districts.
“This is something that has been going on in Montgomery County [for many years],” Smith said. “We’ve had an Amsterdam school resource officer for approaching 20 years, and for Fonda it’s probably been [more than] seven years. I think a lot of it has to do with the partnerships that we have [between the police departments and school districts] and the meetings that we have on a regular basis to develop these plans, and to talk about the safety of our communities and our schools.”
The New York State Council of Superintendents also sent out a statement regarding the shooting stating “Never again.”
“Every superintendent goes to bed at night asking themselves, are we doing enough to protect our students tomorrow?” the statement said. “We ask for the same from our elected leaders. Have we all done enough to ensure the safety of the children, teachers and staff as they set foot in our schools? Families deserve to know they are a priority and that each person’s safety is an actual birthright.”
Members of the council have begun early discussions regarding what more the association could be doing including guidelines or even legislation, said Robert Lowry, the deputy director for advocacy, research and communication for the council.
“This isn’t just a New York State problem,” he said.
Contact reporter Chad Arnold at: 518-410-5117 or [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter: @ChadGArnold. Reporter Shenandoah Briere can be reached at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @SB_DailyGazette. Andrew Waite can be reached at [email protected] and at 518-417-9338. Follow him on Twitter @UpstateWaite. Reach Ashley Onyon at [email protected] or @AshleyOnyon on Twitter.