Health and Safety in Our Schools

When I served on the Superintendent's Forum years ago, the district was working on the formation of a Mental Health Task Force. The amount of care and work that is still being put into this effort is immeasurable and the staff in our schools are very cognizant of how important they are in the development of our students' well-being.

I am a mother to four growing children. I have also had the honor of teaching teenagers and mentoring young professionals for the past 18 years as they navigate their way through life, one day at a time. I value my relationships and cherish these opportunities to do good work.

As people grow from infancy into adulthood, the chemical and physical changes that occur can seem overwhelming. Added stress from the environment can exacerbate the helplessness that some people feel and I acknowledge that it truly takes a village to raise a child. We are all in this together. We are all on the same team. We are all human beings who are worthy of love and belonging. We all need help sometimes. We all have value.

I support student activities that foster a sense of community and positive interactions among individuals. Through my community volunteerism with the PTA, school district, and the educational network of the New York State Master Teacher Program, I have provided these opportunities for myself and others to build positive and lasting relationships, and strive to bring people together in my neighborhood and beyond. The STEM Expo, Camp Invention, Lab Day, Science Night at Maple Avenue Middle School and neighborhood get-togethers are some examples of activities that I have played a role in personally and would support similar activities in the community.

I also support proactive measures for safety and health in our schools and understand the complexity that these challenges bring. In an ideal world, people would not seek to do harm to others or themselves. However, the reality of our world brings both challenges and opportunities for people that suffer from perceived or real harm.

For the past 18 years, I have indirectly witnessed but felt the impact professionally and personally of Columbine, Sandy Hook, Stoneman Douglas, and several other violent school threats and events. Having to actually think about what I would do with my students if such an event were to occur if it were me teaching a class, how I advise them on protecting themselves in the case of an event, and what to do in the aftermath are things that I never thought I would need to consider when I started teaching in the year 2000. When you are in charge of a classroom of beautiful students and have the responsibility of in loco parentis, a call for a lockdown means something very different today than when I started teaching. As a science teacher I am mandated to teach laboratory safety, and this has also certainly evolved over the years.

Whether you are in charge of a classroom of 24 students, a study hall with over 50 students, a cohort of over 400 students, a building with over 1,000 students, or a district with over 6,000 - safety is always the priority and readiness is key.

I feel fortunate to work in a building that truly puts students safety first, and it is my expectation that Saratoga provides adequate safety measures for our children at each building. Our teachers deserve the right to be able to focus on student needs, curriculum, instruction, and leave security to professionals who are trained specialists with experience, as proposed in NYS Senate Bill S101A (January 9, 2019), which uses important language such as "school resource officer, law enforcement officer, or security guard", which includes retired police officers. As a classroom teacher, I personally have a shared interest regarding the need for armed security officers to be properly trained, that protocols are analyzed and monitored, and that evaluation is implemented effectively and efficiently, which is why I also support NYS Senate Bill S3169 (February 4, 2019), which addresses the important need of creating a school resource officer working group in schools.

In May of every year, school budgets go to voters for approval and board of education candidates are voted on. Two years ago, the voter-approved budget for our district included these monitors, some were armed, some were not. Upon discovering that the school board had never approved the practice in the past and that it was illegal, the current school board had to vote on the continuation of this practice, and the school board majority decided to vote the practice down.

SSCSD has a positive history with having armed monitors that were retired/active police and it is important to note that these individuals acted in a quiet, respectful, discreet and responsible manner. I support rearming the retired/active police security monitors that were once armed as this is the most cost-effective solution to the issue of proactive school safety. The practice of having armed, trained and regularly-evaluated active or retired police officers, such as in the SLEOIII NJ Program, is one that New York State may mirror in the near future as evidenced by current bills in the legislature.

In addition to supporting NYS Senate Bill S101A and NYS Senate Bill S3169, I fully support NYS Senate Bill S1330, which was introduced February 12, 2019. This bill amends current education law in relation school resource officers and protection aid, which includes retired police officers, and amending social security law in relation to earnings limitations for retired police officers employed as school resource officers. The aforementioned bills by our legislature were no doubt inspired by the large community response to the issue of school safety and the decision that the school board majority made on October 9, 2018, as well as cost concerns for schools districts for SROs that are not retired police officers (note: information on grant opportunities here).

I would work collaboratively to ensure that our armed monitors would be qualified, trained and evaluated per a newly adopted BOE policy after legal counsel and insurance review and approval. Training programs that already exist through NYSDCJS, local law enforcement agencies, and neighboring school districts should be utilized as guiding documents and then specifically documented in BOE policy . Data from other programs (New Jersey and Warren County), including pending NYS legislation that supports having a school resource officer, law enforcement officer, or security guard have written authorization to carry a firearm on school grounds (S101A) should also be utilized for proper planning, implementation, and evaluation of the safety program and its employees.

Hiring additional SROs is an expense that would not only cripple the school budget at $75K a position, but it will negatively impact instructional quality and force decisions about class sizes, hiring teachers, and expanding our program choices for our children. Hiring additional SROs is unnecessary in light of existing programs and legitimate pathways for rearming our monitors/law enforcement/retired officers. I obtained the training costs for active and retired police officers with DCJS from Janine Kava, Director of Public Information for DCJS via email: "An estimated average cost per course follows this note, however, each individual school sets its own fee schedule. In addition, security guards are licensed by the New York State Department of State":

  • 8-Hour Pre-Assignment Training Course for Security Guards: $50
  • 16-Hour On the Job Training Course for Security Guards: $100
  • 8-Hour Annuals In-Service Training Course for Security Guards: $50
  • 47-Hour Firearms Training Course for Armed Security Guards: $750 (note: this is the same training SROs experience)
  • 8-Hour Annual Firearms Training Course for Armed Security Guards: $150

These fees are minimal and do not have a large impact on the budget. For ten employees - a rough maximum cost would be $10,000, which is a fraction of what an SRO costs. There are licensing costs, but these are also minimal and may be incurred by the individual employee.

I do not support adding more SROs than we currently have due to the excessive cost and the fact that legitimate pathways for providing alternative solutions for school safety exist. I do not support arming teachers or administrators. I support rearming qualified, trained, and evaluated active/retired law enforcement school district personnel.

I would like to share an exchange with you that I had with one of my children a little over a month ago. As a family, we had discussed that I had decided to run for the school board the night prior over dinner. No issues were discussed outside of the fact that I would be going to meetings some nights and that they should be aware that people may ask them things about how I feel about certain topics (which I did not specify) and that they should simply respond with "I don't know". The next morning, my oldest had been ruminating on the development, and when we had a quiet moment alone, she asked me “So, Mom, you are running for the school board?”. I said “Yes, there are so many things that need some work and I’m willing to help”. She asked “Like having armed security?” and I said “Yes. I support them.” I honestly had no idea how she felt about the issue as we had not discussed it. The next two words of our conversation spoke volumes to me as a mother and educator:

“Thanks, Mom.”


I support the return of qualified armed security monitors to SSCSD schools. I do not have a greater political agenda or statement to make on gun control, and I acknowledge that the expense of one SRO per school is not fiscally viable.

I did not attend the emotionally-charged board meeting that has been reported on by the media, and I encourage you to reach out to me directly for accurate communications at connie@woytowichforboe.org.

To that end, I would also like to share part of my email (the complementary content was used above) to the current school board and Dr. Patton, dated October 20th [note: since the time of this correspondence, an SRO has been added to Maple Avenue Middle School, which was described a "discretionary budget item at this point" by a school official at the BOE meeting that I attended on 3/5/19]:


At this time, and to my knowledge based on your board minutes, there is one School Resource Officer (SRO) located at Saratoga Springs High School. This officer is the only armed person that is dedicated to the school district as a whole. According to the Saratoga Springs district report card from NYSED obtained from the district website, Saratoga Springs City Schools serves 6,317 students and employs 1,100 faculty and staff.


To offer some perspective, my school district (student population of approximately 4,800 students) has three dedicated School Resource Officers. We have one SRO housed primarily at Colonie Central High School and we have two additional SROs that support both of our middle schools and all elementary buildings on a daily basis. It is understood that budget costs and operationalization are factors for consideration with protecting our schools, and Saratoga's past practice of monitors carrying firearms, while it was not in compliance at the time, appeared to be effective for operations, budget costs, and school safety.


As an educator, I go to work everyday knowing that I have someone in my building that is there to immediately respond in the case of an imminent threat and that the response time is highly likely to be swift. I enjoy going to work to teach, and know that my students can focus on learning. It appears that the perspective of students and teachers (who are most often the victims of school violence) were not considered in this decision, nor were research findings on neighboring school districts and best practices (or whatever research that is referenced in communications to date) communicated to the public. While Dr. Patton's update yesterday historically outlines how the decision came to be, it does not address the security measures that are in place at the moment to allay any fear (perceived or real) or communicate the results of said research findings, nor does it address any future opportunities for the public to give feedback on this issue with the school board.


I recall getting a survey about New SSCSD Report Cards and the Great Outdoors Project within the last year and receive several communications about the budget vote on an annual basis, but I do not recall getting a survey about school safety or any proactive communication on the issue. I have attached a survey (Excel file) from the Department of Homeland Security for your review and consideration, as it is not clear if this was one of the tools that was used when the district and school board "researched this topic for several months and have gathered feedback". I understand that this topic was discussed at board meetings since July, but as you know, the vast majority of students, teachers and parents/caretakers do not attend board meetings and may not have working knowledge of how schools and schools boards work, nor do they continuously scour the district website for minutes to review. With an issue such as this, there was a failure to actively engage all students, teachers, and families on this issue.


Parents by nature put their trust in schools and the educational process, but as with any relationship where trust and care is at the center, communication is paramount. While recent attempts of communication are acknowledged and appreciated, there was a lack of proactive and thorough feedback from ALL stakeholders.


Relevant questions that should be considered and allowed for public discussion/survey at this time are:


1. Is the school district as a whole, and each building, adequately protected in with dedicated personnel in the case of an imminent threat or violent event?


2. If not, who should be dedicated to protect the schools - School Resource Officers or a dedicated Security Team (such as we have had for the past couple of decades)?


3. In the case of an imminent threat or violent event - what is the plan/responsibilities for students, parents, teachers, administrators and school safety team with regards to how students are accounted for, off site meeting places? How has this been communicated to ensure that families are aware of this plan and their responsibilities?


4. Who are the members of the School Safety Committee and what is their role?


I concur with board members who acknowledge that this is a complex issue. It is my hope that true collaboration, the spirit of a strong community, trusting our schools to care and protect our children, and the love of learning be at the heart of decisions that are made. In order to put learning at the center of our children's lives, adequate safety - perceived or real - must be addressed for all involved. Perhaps Maslow, with his famous Hierarchy of Needs, puts it best: in order to achieve one's full potential, basic needs such as safety must be met (1954). (see below)

I have compiled a short list of resources for your review and consideration, and I sincerely appreciate your time and attention to this important matter.


Sincerely,

Connie Woytowich


Homeland Security: Executive Summary (reference list has additional sources):

https://www.dhs.gov/sites/default/files/publications/18_0711_USSS_NTAC-Enhancing-School-Safety-Brief.pdf

An Operational Guide for Preventing Targeted School Violence

www.dhs.gov

Step 1: Establish a multidisciplinary threat assessment team of school personnel including faculty, staff, administrators, coaches, and available school resource officers who will direct, manage, and document the threat assessment process.


Homeland Security, overview of School Safety and Security:https://www.dhs.gov/school-safety-and-security


From the FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, Best Practices:

https://leb.fbi.gov/articles/featured-articles/school-resource-officers-and-violence-prevention-best-practices-part-one

https://leb.fbi.gov/articles/featured-articles/school-resource-officers-and-violence-prevention-best-practices-part-two


Standards and Best Practice Overview, National Association of School Resource Officers: https://nasro.org/news/press-releases/national-school-policing-association-announces-recommended-standards-best-practices/


FAQ (including how many SROs a district should have based on size): https://nasro.org/frequently-asked-questions/


Survey from Homeland Security attached to email