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Niskayuna police explain lockdown operation; district plans second forum

Niskayuna police explain lockdown operation; district plans second forum

Niskayuna police explain lockdown operation; district plans second forum
Niskayuna Deputy Police Chief Michael Stevens gestures while discussing the lockdown at Wednesday's forum.
Photographer: PETER R. BARBER

Niskayuna police said they patted down 1,500 students and faculty members during the controversial Monday lockdown at Niskayuna High School.

The procedure was one reason teenagers and their teachers had to remain inside the school until 6:20 p.m., when police determined there were no explosives, guns or ammunition inside the school on Balltown Road.

A handwritten note found by a student inside the building -- a note that promised violence -- started the ordeal.

Parents and students, some frustrated and angered by the experience, on Wednesday complained to police and school officials during a forum held inside the high school auditorium. District schools have been subjected to four other threats of violence in recent months.

The district on Friday announced a second "safety forum" will be held Monday, Nov. 19, in the auditorium. Safety issues in district schools will be discussed at the public meeting, which will begin at 6 p.m.

Another safety forum, for high school students only, will be held Thursday, Nov. 15.

The Board of Education will hold its next meeting Tuesday at 6 p.m. in the auditorium of Van Antwerp Middle School. A "privilege of the floor" session, for public commentary, is part of every board meeting.

The district has not changed any policies or procedures since the lockdown put 40 police officers and six police canines in the school for an operation that lasted more than five hours.

"We're continuing to review the situation and look for areas to improve our plans and procedures, but nothing right now," said Matt Leon, a spokesman for the district.

Deputy Police Chief Michael Stevens on Friday said police were aware of the fact that kids were locked in their classrooms.

"People are under the impression we're forgetting that," Stevens said. "It was actually on our forefront, that we need to move. But we are not going to risk safety for convenience."

Stevens explained how parts of the investigation were conducted. A student found the note about 12:45 p.m.

"There was a victim named," Stevens said. "It said this would be the first victim. It didn't say it would be the only victim."

School officials placed the building on lockdown and told students and staffers the move was not a drill. During lockdown, Stevens said, students huddle in a corner of their classroom with doors locked.

Niskayuna police, located near the school at Edwin D. Reilly Jr. Niskayuna Town Hall off Nott Street East, were at the scene by 12:48 p.m.

About eight Niskayuna officers reported. One of the first things that happened was the male student identified in the note was taken from his classroom and walked to the main office, for his own protection.

"The subject was with law enforcement the whole time," Stevens said.

Niskayuna police were soon joined by members of the Schenectady County Sheriff's Department Task Force, Troy Police Department, Albany County Sheriff's Department, New York State Police, New York State Park Police and Rotterdam police.

The officers searched the 80-classroom school. The police dogs, trained to sniff out explosives and guns, were also part of the detail.

The dogs were walked by school lockers, into the auditorium, cafeteria and other common areas. Police assumed the person who wrote the note was still inside the building, so everyone was a suspect.

"The only way I can ensure the safety of those children and that staff was to do a cursory pat-down of everyone in the school for a weapon," Stevens said.

Male officers checked boys; female officers checked girls.

Canines sniffed backpacks and other items in classrooms. Once the students and their classroom had been cleared by police, the kids and teacher were instructed to wait inside the room until police returned.

Stevens said he heard some people complained kids were never told there was no shooter. He said withholding the information was the right thing to do.

"We can't say that," he said. "If we were to say that and somebody started shooting, now what? We're investigating a threat."

"If a kid gets hurt in that school when we're there," Stevens added, "I've got to live with that as the person in charge."

Students could not leave their classrooms to use restrooms. They had to utilize trash containers in their classrooms.

"We're trying to fix today's problems in a building that was designed 60 years ago," Stevens said. "The only way you can actually fix this, in my mind, is tear the building down, build a new building and every school gets built with a bathroom in the classroom. That's not feasible, we all know schools are too much money now. We have to adapt and overcome."

Stevens said he knows the lockdown was a stressful experience for many. 

"I still go back to what's worse -- an emotional scar or a bullet hole scar," he said. "To me, the physical scar is going to be worse."

Jack Calareso, president of the Niskayuna Central School District's Board of Education, said he supported actions taken by both the police department and school district.

"I know they are always looking to improve, from looking to see if there's a way to improve the way we handle these situations," Calareso said. "I trust their ability and expertise to figure out the best way to handle what's an impossible situation."

Calareso's daughter Josie, 13, a freshman at Niskayuna, was among the students who spent the long Monday in school. Calareso said he knows his daughter was frightened.

"My daughter, like most of the students who were in the building, was initially concerned," Calareso said. "They knew they were in a lockdown and it wasn't a drill. They had to rely on the procedures they've practiced."

Stevens said police must always taken threats seriously, although he noted other law enforcement agencies have said their officers have never handled a school shooting that was first "announced" by a threatening note.

"My response to that was, until February of this year, we never saw somebody pull a fire alarm and shoot kids as they came into the hallways," Stevens said, recalling the 17 students and staffers shot and killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida,  on Feb. 14.

"I am not going to be the first one to have one announced by a letter and miss it. I refuse."

Stevens added that police did not consider sending home classrooms that had been "cleared." Students would have had to be escorted to exits, and Stevens believed it would have taken more time had frequent escorts become part of the operation.

The school was not evacuated, the deputy chief said, because police plan for other, possibly harmful situations. Bombs could be hidden outside the building; someone who means harm could also be outside, watching the school.

Some time was spent to devise the plan police eventually used to comb through the school.

"Everybody thinks you're just going to show up and have a plan," Stevens said. "You can't. Every school is different, every threat is different."

Dogs were an integral part of the operation, Stevens added, but the animals can't work non-stop. They needed breaks.

The pat-downs took the most time. Without the help from local police, Stevens said, Niskayuna police would have had to keep students into the late evening hours.

Stevens said police take school threats seriously. He also wants parents to take them seriously.

"We need this to start at home," Stevens said. "We need parents to speak to their children and understand these are felonies."

A teenager arrested for making a terroristic threat -- like the Niskayuna student arrested last week for making threats to the school through social media -- should understand the charge can affect future plans.

"Even if you're joking, if we identify you, you're getting that charge," Stevens said.

Niskayuna Town Supervisor Yasmine Syed said she talked to Stevens about the police response and investigation.

"I support him and how he handled the situation," Syed said. "Going forward, we definitely want to keep in close communication with the school board to see if they're taking any additional action now going forward to try to mitigate these situations from happening again in the future."

Contact Gazette reporter Jeff Wilkin at 518-395-3124 or at [email protected]

 

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