SCHOOLS – At about 8:30 on a Sunday night earlier this month, Ballston Spa’s interim superintendent learned about a threat of gun violence that could put the district at risk the following morning.
Within 90 minutes, Interim Superintendent Gianleo Duca had sent out a notice to the Ballston Spa Central School District community.
Meanwhile, the Saratoga County Sheriff’s Department investigated the threat made on Snapchat and ultimately determined it not to be credible.
The next morning, school attendance was largely unaffected, and extra police presence helped ensure the situation remained safe.
Still, it made for a restless Sept. 18 night for Duca.
“Certainly being the interim [superintendent] and having this sort of situation happen relatively early in the school year, I didn’t get a lot of sleep that night,” Duca said. “I wanted to make sure that everybody is safe.”
In many ways, the incident in Ballston Spa reflects the experience that school districts across the Capital District and Mohawk Valley have had coming into the school year. While many leaders entered the year on heightened alert following a school year that was rife with tensions stemming from COVID-19 protocols and that ended with a national tragedy in Uvalde, Texas, the school year so far has been going more smoothly than many anticipated.
“What I’m hearing when I talk to local leaders is that it is better because the stress from COVID is much less right now,” said NYSUT President Andy Pallotta. ”Not having the barriers, the six-feet distancing, the wearing of a mask, that has all brought down the pressure of a new school year.”
To be sure, while districts across the region are reporting strong starts to the year, districts like Ballston Spa and others have not been entirely immune to worries about violence. The Greater Amsterdam School District dealt with a threat of gun violence on its first full day of classes. State Police made an arrest for a bomb threat against the Cobleskill-Richmondville Central School District earlier this month. Meanwhile, the Times Union reported the Watervliet district rescheduled a home football game because of a feared threat of gun violence.
Nonetheless, even districts that have dealt with specific safety concerns report a strong start to the year.
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“Really since that day, it has been a pretty normal start to the year,” said Cobleskill-Richmondville Superintendent Matthew Sickles. “Our students rebounded pretty well from [the bomb threat] as did our community at large, and I think we’re off to a good start.”
School leaders say the clamer start to the year has to do with the state of the pandemic.
“In terms of safety and student behavior, some of the things that we’re not seeing this year is the rocky return to school for some students. So rates of vandalism and discipline are back to pre-COVID rates,” said Duanesburg Superintendent of Schools James Niedermeier. “At the beginning of last year, there were students who hadn’t been in school in some time, and it was difficult to all of a sudden be in close proximity with people every single day, and that takes some management. You also can’t discount the fact that students experienced a significant amount of trauma over the last couple of years and were expressing their emotions through their behaviors.”
That’s why many schools have placed a greater emphasis on social and emotional learning and services. For instance, the Saratoga Springs City School District doubled its onsite Behavioral Health Services North staff to six.
“That’s in addition to our school counselors, our psychologists and social workers that are employed by the school district. So this is additional mental health support,” said Superintendent Michael Patton. “When we finished the year last year we had kids on waiting lists and now we’ve been able to eliminate the waiting lists by having the opportunity to expand some of our school-based mental health programming.”
The Schenectady City School District, too, has added mental health professionals, including now employing counselors in every elementary school, according to Superintendent Anibal Soler, Jr. In total, the district has 40 counselors, 55 school social workers and 22 school psychologists.
But in addition to focusing on mental health, districts like Schenectady have also beefed up security. Schenectady is spending $2.6 million of a nearly $240 million budget on School Climate and Safety this school year.
“It is something that we think is important to invest in so we can focus on teaching and learning,” Soler said.
The investment means everything from adding new security cameras to updating visitor identification software to ensuring that doors can lock properly. It also means employing staff who are responsible for promoting a positive school culture.
“We spent a lot of time last year evaluating what do we need, what is going to make this better, what is going to make this more safe. And before Uvalde happened, we were in the process of evaluating a lot of these things already,” said Jeffrey Russo, the district’s director of Climate and Safety. “We didn’t change our course much when that happened. It just kind of reaffirmed that we were going in the right direction.”
Schenectady also has three police officers who are employed by the Schenectady Police Department but are stationed full time in the district.
The district is hardly alone in increasing police presence on campuses this year. Duanesburg has approved a second school resource officer, whom Niedermeier expects to start sometime in the middle of the school year.
And the Broadalbin-Perth Central School District brought in two school resource officers who are employed by the Futon County Sheriff’s Office. The district will pay $215,000 a year for the officers, which will cover salary, training and equipment, including a squad car, according to Superintendent Stephen Tomlinson.
NYSUT is open to school resource officers, said Pallotta.
“Our position has been for each community to make their own decisions. So if a district feels, a board of education, the parents feel, the educators feel that they want school resource officers in each school building then that’s what they should do,” said NYSUT’s president. “If they have a comfort level for it, then by all means go for it.”
On a recent weekday morning, Nicole Buckley, one of the new school resource officers in Broadalbin-Perth, helped escort children from buses into the elementary school. Then she checked all the exterior doors to make sure they were locked and visited a classroom to show she’s a friendly face. The kids got a kick out of trying to guess her age – she’s 27.
While Buckley and her fellow officer Kyle Harris say they are fully prepared to fire the first shot in response to an active threat, the hope is their mere presence is a deterrent.
Loren Snyder, a parent in the district, wanted to teach his fourth-grade son a lesson on this particular morning. The son had tried to sneak a Nerf gun into his backpack that morning, and Snyder wanted him to learn that it’s not OK to bring any type of weapon into school, even if it only fires styrofoam ammunition. So Snyder brought his son over to Buckley, who explained that even a toy gun could result in a suspension.
Snyder was confident his son got the message, and he’s reassured by having police presence at the school.
“Having them here, we don’t have to worry as much about weapons coming into the school,” he said. “It’s good to have that protection. It makes parents feel safe.”