Schenectady City School District Superintendent Laurence Spring is gearing up for a question that has no good answer.
“Can you guarantee that this won’t happen in our school?”
The answer is no.
“We can never guarantee that,” he said Saturday. “I’ve had some folks tweet at me and approach me at the Friday basketball game and ask things like that, but unfortunately, this is not the first event like this that has happened.”
The gunman in Friday’s tragedy, 20-year-old Adam Lanza, forced his way into Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. — a school that had new safety measures in place and had practiced safety drills two months earlier.
“But schools are not unlike a movie theater in Aurora, Colo., or a military base in Texas,” said Spring, naming off the locations of other recent mass shootings. “Sometimes, really bad things can happen, so all we can do, all we can focus on with concerned parents, is that in general, schools are really, overwhelmingly pretty safe places.”
So when they ask, he will go over the safety procedures in place.
There are surveillance cameras around the district’s buildings. Doors are locked during school hours, and when somebody wants to enter, they need to press a buzzer and look into a camera before staff lets them in. The district has metal detectors, though they aren’t used on a daily basis — only for special events like basketball games that draw a lot of outsiders to school grounds.
“It’s something that creates a lot of uncertainty for us,” he said.
The strongest line of defense that any school can have, however, is human intelligence.
“We tend to leap to thinking about protocols and procedures, and those are important to know,” said Spring. “But even more important is having adults around who know who these hundreds of kids are coming into the school during the day — someone who knows when kids are supposed to be coming in, when someone is there who doesn’t belong, or when a kid is acting out of sorts today.”
But even that kind of intelligence wouldn’t have prevented Friday’s massacre. And for some of the players embroiled in an often-heated gun control debate, it’s the reason they believe schools should hire armed security guards or off-duty and retired police officers.
Spring has worked in both settings — institutions that employed school resource officers who luckily never needed to draw their weapons and institutions that refused to let officers bring a firearm into a school setting.
“If you’ve got people in schools with guns that are not police officers, if they’re guards from a private security firm or the like, then it opens up a whole host of other kinds of issues.”
As an educator, Spring is facing what he describes as an even bigger threat than guns.
“We need to be thinking a whole lot more about mental health issues than we do about gun control,” he said. “Yes, people pick up a gun, and that’s how they execute their plan. But they’re not picking up that gun unless they have something very, very wrong and something bad going on inside them.”
As long as the nation continues to treat mental health care as taboo and schools are forced to trim their mental health programs — which aren’t mandated by the state — Spring said he expects the issue to go unaddressed.
In the last two days, when the nation wasn’t asking “why?”, it was asking “how?” How did Adam Lanza manage to pull this off? He had the weaponry to execute his horror, but he also had the mind to do it in the first place.
“The conversation about mental health will fade away pretty quickly,” said Spring. “I think it’s because it’s a nuanced conversation. It’s something that we don’t know very much about. And gun control will dominate, but that too will soon turn from a bipartisan conversation to a pretty bitter debate. So I don’t have any real deep hope for large-scale change at the national level.”
A candlelight prayer vigil will be held today on the steps of Schenectady’s City Hall in a show of support for the community that lost so many of its youngest schoolchildren and beloved school officials Friday.
Local pastors will offer prayers, and Mayor Gary McCarthy is expected to speak at the gathering, which is being organized by neighborhood leaders and begins at 4 p.m.