SCHENECTADY — The safety climate in Schenectady schools is on the upswing in the first year of the district’s Community Engagement Officer program, according to Jeff Russo, the Schenectady City School District Director of Culture, Climate and Safety.
During a presentation to the school board during the council’s meeting on Wednesday evening, Russo said the district has found success with a combination of three Schenectady police officers posted throughout the district as well as the presence of dozens of trained security monitors posted in district buildings.
Russo began his stint with the district in November 2021 shortly after the district launched the Community Engagement Officer program, which saw two Schenectady police officers stationed in district buildings. The 2022-23 school year marks the first official year of the initiative, with three officers patrolling the district’s 16 school buildings.
A safety survey conducted in 2022 found that Schenectady students, parents and employees all listed school safety as their top area of improvement for the district’s climate.
“Everybody felt like the buildings were unsafe and that if I walk into a building I don’t know what’s going to happen to me,” Russo told the board. “It seemed like you had a bad feeling if you went into a building. One of the things that I’ve really taken pride in the last couple of months or so is the number of times I hear that people see a better climate and culture.”
Schenectady Police Lt. Mike Dalton told the board on Wednesday that in years past he witnessed a chaotic atmosphere in district hallways, with the culture now shifted.
“That was kind of everybody’s observation when I got there, which was the impetus for why we needed people who could become guardians of the hallways,” Schenectady City School District Superintendent Anibal Soler said on Thursday. “They make sure kids are in their classes and that we’re not allowing poor decisions to happen. It’s good to hear that from him, but I really feel the value is hearing our staff and teachers say that. When people want to visit our buildings and they walk through and say, ‘Wow, this is much different.’”
Dalton explained that the three officers who staff the district are collecting data on more than two dozen categories including hall checks and weapons’ incidents in order to monitor safety progress in the district.
“We’re collecting a lot of data,” he told the board. “We want to provide transparency and we want you guys to know exactly what we’re doing. We want to address a lot of the fears of negative things that people were worried would happen by introducing us into the school. If any of those negative things did happen, we’d like to know about them and find a way to get away from them.”
Dalton told the board that in the first half of the school year that the three police officers assigned to the district had needed to intervene in five violent incidents in the district, including a cafeteria fight and an altercation at a high school football game. Dalton reported that the officers have made no arrests in the first four months of the school year.
“I’ve watched videos of officers around the country body slamming students and punching 14-year-olds in the face,” he told the board. “That’s not something that Schenectady police are going to be involved in.”
In data presented during the meeting, the district’s office discipline referral rate and out of school suspension rate are trending in a positive direction during this school year.
Russo credited the presence of the safety monitors, also known as “red shirts” for their designated attire, as helping to build trust with district students. There are 72 school safety officers/security monitors assigned to buildings throughout the district, with the staff members receiving Therapeutic Crisis Intervention training prior to entering school buildings.
“They all take pride in that title,” Russo said of the ‘red shirts.’ “We’ve been really successful. What I hoped to do was bring a lot of people from Schenectady back to the school to get working with the kids to accomplish all of these different goals that we want to accomplish under the superintendent’s lead.”
The district previously had a staff of 85 paraprofessionals who provided student supervision throughout the district.
Soler said the “red shirts” working in conjunction with the three police officers in the district have fostered an improved climate in school hallways.
“It’s a fine line because we don’t want to create a police type of mentality, but we want to create a mentality where school is the most important thing,” the superintendent said on Thursday. “We know we have challenges with some of our results, so if we have kids in our hallways and we have kids not behaving, we know there’s no way we’re going to improve our outcomes on assessments and graduation rates.”
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