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Area sheriffs weigh options as students prepare for gun violence protests

Area sheriffs weigh options as students prepare for gun violence protests

Saratoga County, Montgomery County Sheriffs say that officials from various school districts inquired about school resource officers
Area sheriffs weigh options as students prepare for gun violence protests
Saratoga Co. Sheriff Mike Zurlo speaks during a community forum held last fall.
Photographer: Erica Miller/Gazette Photographer

CAPITAL REGION — As more local high-schoolers prepare to participate in walkouts to raise awareness of gun violence in schools, law enforcement officials are examining what routes they can take to make schools safer, including posting armed officers at schools.

On March 14, students around the country are planning to walk out of classes at 10 a.m. for 17 minutes. The March 14 walkout was organized by the youth branch of the Women’s March.
 
The March walkouts are a response to a Feb. 14 school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Seventeen people, many of whom were students, died.
 
In response, police offices throughout the area are receiving inquiries about positioning a permanent armed officer in schools, commonly known as school resource officers, or and SRO.
 
Saratoga County Sheriff Michael Zurlo confirmed he has been approached by districts in his county over the past five days about bringing in an SRO, an approach he feels would be the most effective in preventing possible shootings.
 
“That’s my goal. That’s the conversation we’ll have with the schools,” he said on Wednesday, though he would not name specific school districts that had made inquiries. 
 
While those discussions continue, Zurlo said a “see something, say something,” approach is important to utilize as well.
 
“These kids are our best source of information,” he added.
 
Fulton County Sheriff Richard Giardino is also in talks with various districts to bring in SROs, he said on Wednesday. 
 
The United States Department of Justice, Giardino explained, offers a three-year grant program to assist with the hiring of an SRO.
 
The grant pays up to 75 percent of the total of the officer’s salary, training and benefits -- up to $125,000 -- over the three years. In the fourth year, the respective county is required to pick up the total cost.
 
The plan would include a deputy in each school district for either a full day or two half days each week. 
 
An equally crucial area to focus on, Giardino added, is mental health. He said he would like to see a database created that would keep track of students or suspects exhibiting what he described as “red flag” behaviors, a database both school districts and law enforcement officials could access.
 
“If somebody wants to hurt people, they can do it with gun, a knife, a truck. The gun is just a tool that they use,” he said. “We in law enforcement need a mechanism so that we can connect with the other systems.”

On Thursday, the New York State Sheriff's Association announced that it would ask the state Legislature to include funding for at least one SRO in every grade school and high school in the state in the 2018 budget. 

There are about 4,750 public schools and nearly 2,000 private schools educating K-12 students statewide. The Sheriffs’ Association estimated the cost of its proposal would be roughly equivalent to that of adding one teacher to each of these schools. The number of SROs in schools has decreased in recent years due to lack of funding.

Meanwhile, the number of students planning to do their part to curb gun violence is growing.

Students at Shaker High School in Colonie plan to walk out of classes on March 14, while students at both Saratoga Springs High School and Schenectady High School are considering participating in the demonstration. 

The Student Faculty Administration at Shenendehowa High School has voiced support for the walkouts on social media, and Suzie Davis, an 18-year old senior at Niskayuna High School, is organizing a walkout for her district, she said on Wednesday.

“Everyone is so sad and just upset with the continuance of all this gun violence,” Davis said, noting that her government class spent an hour recently talking about the Parkland shooting and what might be done to prevent future shootings. 

Davis was only 12 when 20 children were killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School by a shooter. At that point, the students who are now speaking out were too young to understand what was going on, she said. 

But now, their fear has been replaced with anger.

“Rather than just feeling so hopeless, a lot of people really feel angered,” she said. “People aren’t being bystanders. A lot of people are really ready to take a stand and to do something.”

Joe Vesic, a 17-year old senior at Ballston Spa High School, is organizing a March 14 walkout at his school.

He noted the students have the support of school leaders, and that it is time to address what is, in his opinion, a lack of action by Congress to pass gun-control legislation.

“The whole point of democracy is making your voice heard. I think that’s what is starting to happen. It’s liberating,” he said.


 

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