When I was growing up, the biggest threat that faced school children was an act of nature. In Alabama, where I’m from, anyone who went through grade school had the more-or-less same memory of a spring tornado drill. The specific hiding spots varied over the years (hallway versus classroom), but it always entailed getting away from the windows and huddling in a corner or under some shelves or a desk (sometimes a textbook over our heads), while we waited for the storms to pass—lightning crashing and rain pouring down.
Flash forward 20-something years and, in addition to being a reporter, I’m a teacher’s aid for a 2nd grade class at Lake Avenue Elementary in town. Of course, there are no tornado drills in Upstate New York, but our children have gotten used to a different set of drills for a vastly different kind of threat, not just here but all across the nation: school shootings.
Yesterday, according to The Saratogian, the Saratoga County Sheriff’s Office will partner with some area school districts to implement a new School Resource Officer (SRO) program. Beginning in the fall of the 2018-19 school year, parents and teachers can expect to see more officers walking their halls. These armed deputies will not just try to reduce incidents of violence and increase school safety, but they’ll also interact with kids in order to serve as positive role models and boost officer interaction with the community. However, the new program won’t be coming to every Saratoga County school.
Owing to the recent spate of school violence and shootings across the nation, a number of parents, school leaders and citizens contacted the Sheriff’s Office asking for something more to be done. In response, the Sheriff’s Office sent out a letter earlier this year offering to expand the already existing liaison program (established four years ago) into a bigger, more hands-on SRO program. In all, seven school districts accepted: Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake, Ballston Spa, Mechanicville, Schuylerville, South Glens Falls, Shenendehowa and Stillwater.
Noticeably absent from the list of schools in The Saratogian‘s story on May 17 was the Saratoga Springs School District (saratoga living reached out to the school district for comment and has yet to hear back). saratoga living has since learned that Saratoga Springs High School has actually had an SRO program in place for two decades, according to John Catone, Assistant Chief of Police at the Saratoga Springs Police Department. In fact, the high school has had three separate armed SROs onsite at the school—officers Russ Terpening, John Kelly and Lloyd Davis—since September 1998. That officer is assigned directly to the school, and not only works during regular school hours, but also at school-related events. The school district reimburses the department for the officers’ work. Beyond that, the Saratoga police department has had an active-shooter training program in the district in place since 2000—and doesn’t have its own SWAT team, but rather trains every police officer in dealing with active-shooter-type scenarios—and how to handle them in real time. The department even has a designated, off-campus area where it can safely move the entire student body in case of an active shooter situation, says Catone. (The location of that area has never been made public.) There are no SROs, however, at the local elementary schools within the department’s jurisdiction, despite the drilling I alluded to above.
One of the reasons why a school district might not want to accept the new program is because it would have to shoulder 75 percent of the costs for this new SRO program, including the benefits, salaries and equipment for the officers. Some argue that the cost to districts is justified, given the circumstances. “It’s also about enhancing our academic experience, [and] building trust and exposing students to true mentors and role models,” Ed Kinowski, Saratoga County Board of Supervisors Chairman, told The Saratogian. The Saratoga County Sheriff’s Department will assign several deputies to the seven school districts after the deputies graduate from their own SRO training program over the summer.
Still, with the addition of armed officers in local schools, one has to wonder whether it’ll make these schools safer—or even prevent a tragedy from occurring. Even as I write this article, another school shooting has happened in Santa Fe, TX, killing at least 10 people and injuring a number of others. This is a subject that hits home for me because I work in these schools. I’ve participated in the nameless, unplanned drills where the teacher and I lock the classroom doors, turn out the lights, and try to keep the children quiet, as armed officers patrol the halls with their police dogs. What hurts me the most is that we never explain to the children what’s really going on—what we’re really practicing hiding from. It hurts, because we shouldn’t have to tell them. Obviously, we want our children to be safe, but this shouldn’t have to be our reality. There has to be another way. It makes me think about those tornado drills, a heavy textbook over my head. Those were scary times—but it makes me miss when ordinary people were more predictable and less violent than the weather.