Schools may have tightened their security measures recently, but most already had extensive security before the Newtown shootings, speakers said at a panel discussion Thursday night on keeping children safe from school gun violence.
Since the Connecticut massacre, state Trooper Kevin McMahon has been reassigned from road patrol to work on security with school districts in Saratoga, Warren and Washington counties.
“I have yet to find any districts that have major shortcomings,” he said.
Measures such as police officers in schools taken after the Columbine school shootings in Colorado in 1999 were cut back in recent years because of school budget cuts, but most school districts are now rethinking security.
“There’s many, many precautions being taken at schools across the state,” said Oliver Robinson, superintendent of the Shenendehowa School District.
McMahon and Robinson were among seven panelists participating in the “Keeping Our Children Safe From Gun Violence in Our Schools” forum sponsored by the Leagues of Women Voters in Saratoga, Schenectady and Albany counties.
About 150 people attended the two-hour event in the Ballston Spa High School auditorium, organized in response to the Dec. 14 massacre at Sandy Hook elementary school, in which 20 first-graders and six educators were killed by a 20-year-old gunman.
The League of Women Voters has long-held positions in favor of some of the measures now under state and national debate, including bans on assault weapons and better mental health treatment for potentially violent people.
“We have no time to waste. Too many children have been killed already,” said Patricia Nugent, president of the Saratoga County league.
New York state last week adopted a new law banning assault weapons and mandating mental health professions to report credible patient threats, but a national debate on proposed federal legislation is just starting. The National Rifle Association has indicated it will oppose any new federal gun restrictions.
Since 1979, Nugent said, 119,000 children or teenagers have been killed by guns in the United States — far more than in any other developed country in the world.
“It would be wrong for us now not to take action,” she said, citing the attention and debate the killings of very young children has provoked.
Robinson, a former president of the state Council of School Superintendents, said his own schools already take measures like having unarmed guards and video surveillance — and he thinks all the state’s schools should have money for those sorts of measures.
But school environments, he said, “are already relatively safe.”
“Whatever we do, we should not get to a place where our schools don’t feel like schools and feel like correctional institutions,” Robinson said.
The governor’s proposed 2013 state budget released this week includes $3.2 million for “school safety improvement teams,” but it isn’t yet clear what that term means.
McMahon, in response to a written question from the audience, declined to say whether any particular weapon should be banned,
“We need to focus on preventing incidents from happening, rather than on prohibiting any particular kind of weapon,” he said. “It’s controlling the situation, rather than focusing on the kind of weapon.”
Robinson said Shenendehowa administrators and staff have benefited from training in “incident command,” the system used by emergency responders to immediately assign response roles and assess unexpected situations.
“School safety is enhanced most through increased awareness,” Robinson said. “As we always encourage our students, if you see something, say something.”
Although the shooters in recent mass-killing incidents have generally had mental problems, psychiatrist Dr. James Kelleher, chief medical officer at Four Winds Hospital in Saratoga Springs, said most people with mental illness aren’t violent. “It’s not as easy as pointing to one tell-tale sign,” he said of those who become killers.
Kelleher said some estimates are that as many as one in five people at some point have mental illness, but only one-third to one-half get treatment.
He said he supports increased mental health funding. “For children with mental health issues, early intervention can be vital.”
Kathleen Donahue, vice president of the New York State United Teachers, said measures like installing bullet-proof glass at school entrances are worth considering, though that didn’t stop the shooter from getting into Sandy Hook.
“We need funding for a better ratio of students to counselors and staff,” she said.