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Wallkill Valley TimesSchool safety remains an issue in PB

School safety remains an issue in PB

Many schools across the country are tightening up their security measures after the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida. During a recent Pine Bush Board of Education meeting, Superintendent Tim Mains unveiled a new safety budget for the 2018-2019 school year.

The budget includes hiring an additional student resource officer (SRO) in the high school, an additional security aide at the middle schools, new digital safety plans, a Pine Bush dedicated tip line and youth violence prevention programs.

One thing that sticks out in the budget is the lack of resources being allocated to the four Pine Bush elementary schools – E.J. Russell Elementary School, Pakanasink Elementary School, Pine Bush Elementary School and Circleville Elementary School. None of the elementary schools will see a SRO or security aide.

Mains attributes this to the size and need for secondary schools to have an increased security presence. He says the entire student population moves classes every 45 minutes in the high school and that the population of students is anywhere from two to four times larger than the number of students who attend a particular elementary school period.

“It’s not saying that the elementary [level] isn’t important or that they don’t have issues,” says Mains. “It’s in prioritization where security staff is needed most. It would be inaccurate to conclude that elementary schools aren’t important or we’re not paying attention to security in elementary schools because we didn’t impose security.”

But in the northeast region, the deadliest school shooting that occured since 1990 took place at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut. More than 20 children and adults were killed in the 2012 shooting.

Pine Bush elementary parents are angry and anxious, rightfully so. They’re unleashing their frustrations with the new safety budget and calling for stricter security in the schools their children attend.

“It’s one of those things where people think, ‘Oh, that’s not going to happen here’,” says Cheryl Mallon, whose son attends E.J. Russell. “But the reality is there have been several incidents already that parents don’t know about because Pine Bush is sweeping it under the carpet and not telling parents. But I know that there has, in the last month, been two arrests at the high school level.”

Mallon’s information about threats and arrests made in the high school comes from an unnamed Pine Bush school employee. And while not addressing a specific incident due to privacy laws in place for high school students, Mains says that the number of alleged threats have increased “dramatically” in the past few weeks in the high school. Crawford Police Chief Dominick Blasko says several arrests for different reasons are made in schools, but gave no further details.

In E.J. Russell, Mallon says it wasn’t until this school year, when a new afternoon greeter was hired, that she was asked for identification when entering the school.

“Security is a joke in [E.J. Russell] because people come in and they just wander wherever,” Mallon says. “E.J. Russell is the only [elementary school in the district] that you’re in the door before they ask you for your ID. Depending on who is sitting at that greeter’s desk, which is two feet away from the door, they may or may not ask for ID.”

She shares the same concerns as another parent, Michele Robinholt, whose son attends the second grade at E.J. Russell.

Robinholt says she’s spoken to the board of education regarding some immediate cost-effective security measures that can be taken in the elementary schools.

“One of the things I went to [Mains] about was not allowing anybody to enter [E.J. Russell] but to keep that person outside until you ascertain why they’re there and then either grant them access or not grant them access,” she says. “…It is my understanding [through] several people I’ve spoken with that volunteers that go in the school on a regular basis or substitute teachers have received no formal training on what to do should there be an active shooter situation. So if I’m a substitute teacher and I’m in charge of 24 students and a code is called that there’s an active shooter, all I have to go on is my instinct. I’ve received no formal education on where to go [or] what to do with these children.”

In an email sent to Mains and the board of education, Robinholt says that having no security personnel at the elementary level sends a clear message to the community that elementary school safety is not as important.

“I think our eyes should be on the prize that we have an SRO in every school,” she says. “…What can we shift and what can we move to get an SRO? It’s a new world, it’s a new day. You can love guns, you can hate them. You can focus on anything you want. But the truth of the matter is, it’s here. And a second grader shouldn’t have to be worried about going to school. I shouldn’t feel sick knowing my son’s at school and wondering what’s going to happen today.”

Although no physical security is being added to the elementary schools, two new initiatives are being implemented this year. Start with Hello and Say Something, two programs formed under the Sandy Hook Promise, a national non-profit organization that was created by family members of the victims who were killed at Sandy Hook Elementary will be aimed at elementary students.

Start with Hello focuses on the social isolation of children in schools, bullying and preventing violence and depression. It’s a program designed to bring people together to look out for each other.

According to the Sandy Hook Promise website, the Start with Hello initiative “asks students, educators, parents and other community leaders who interact with children to take a simple, yet incredibly powerful, action at lunch – making sure that no one eats alone. This simple action, when taught and put into practice, instills the power and reward of social inclusion – that when you see someone alone at lunch (or across any other experience), say hello, introduce yourself, ask them to join you.”

The program echoes the “Walk Up, Not Out” movement, in which parents advocate for students to be nicer to each other to end gun violence.

“It doesn’t matter how nice you are to someone, if someone wants to do something they will,” says Christina Chavez.

Chavez has two sons who attend Pine Bush Elementary. She works in a hospital and frequently comes into contact with psychiatric patients. She says she knows firsthand that simply being nice to someone doesn’t guarantee a different outcome than the one already planned.

“Do I think it’s a bad thing to say let’s all be kind to each other, let’s all start with hello and not leave anybody out and make for a better environment within our schools? No,” says Robinholt. “I don’t have a problem with that as so long as we are taking other steps to protect our students.”

A district-wide program being implemented to all Pine Bush schools is the Speak Up program, where students and parents can anonymously report suspected threats and illegal activities to a dedicated Pine Bush tip line. The tip line will be monitored by Gaggle staff, a safety management Google suite, all year round.

But Pine Bush elementary parents say more can be done to end gun violence threats in schools.

“I feel we can do better. We need to do better,” says Robinholt. “And we owe it to our children to keep them safe.”

By Jaspreet Gill
jgill@tcnewspapers.com

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