By Melissa Hale-Spencer
GUILDERLAND — In the wake of last Friday’s Sandy Hook Elementary shootings, school leaders here met Monday morning with first responders from local fire, police, and emergency services to be sure Guilderland has a good plan in place to deter violence and deal with an emergency.
“I always say our first job is not teaching and learning; it’s safety,” Superintendent Marie Wiles told The Enterprise on Tuesday. “We think about this all the time.”
Wiles posted a statement on the district’s website Monday listing what Guilderland does to ensure student safety.
When hired, employees are fingerprinted and go through background checks; they wear identification badges in the schools. The main entrances of all schools have video cameras. Visitors at all schools are required to sign in and wear nametags.
“At the middle school and high school,” Wiles said, “we have one or two individuals stationed at a visible desk to greet visitors and have them sign in.”
At the five elementary schools, visitors ring a doorbell at the main entrance, are observed by closed-circuit camera from the school office, and buzzed in by secretaries. The buzzer systems were installed three years ago, Wiles said.
“Buzzers are more reliable,” she said, “because the doors are actually locked.”
She went on, “At some schools this week, we have staff greeting people. That’s not budgeted; its because of a heightened sense of worry and concern.”
Evaluating the need for paid monitors, formerly stationed at the elementary schools, “will be a topic in the budget process,” Wiles said.
Students at Guilderland, as required by law, participate in a dozen fire drills a year. They also go through a lockdown drill at least once a year.
School leaders work regularly with the local police and fire departments, and Building Crisis Teams also meet regularly.
A Guilderland Police officer is stationed in the high school and visits others schools in the district as needed.
The Sandy Hook Elementary School had similar safety measures in place. Wiles cited a commentator who said that what happened at Sandy Hook was not because of a failed safety system. The gunman shot his way through the glass in the locked front entrance, police say; he then shot the principal and other adults who rushed to prevent his rampage.
Security history at GCSD
Wiles said this week that the district had received dozens of phone calls and e-mails since the Connecticut school shooting, predominantly at the elementary level.
“Pine Bush received the most,” she said.
In 1997, an intruder entered Pine Bush Elementary. No harm was done. But it “sent a message that that can happen anywhere,” said Nancy Andress at the time. Andress, who has since retired, headed the district’s Safe and Drug-Free Schools Committee.
At that time, individual school cabinets made plans for security at each school. “Each building needed to look at its culture and develop recommendations,” said Andress. “Our committee never said, ‘Lock all doors.’
“Most have elected to leave one door open, and to lock the side and rear doors,” Andress said at the time. “While instituting a process where there are visitor badges…none have opted to do video surveillance.”
In April of 1999, in the wake of the school killings at Columbine, many districts rushed to beef up security, installing metal detectors and surveillance cameras and hiring armed officers.
Blaise Salerno, who was superintendent at the time, spoke to Guilderland High School students and the school board of the need for “the development of a caring community, one in which we look after each other.”
Salerno encouraged students to help those who were troubled, and, if it seemed too much to handle, to seek help from a teacher or administrator. He said he realized this was considered “ratting” and went against school culture.
He assured students that “the position of the district was not to be punitive...but to supply appropriate help and support for anyone.”
Alluding to the fact that the two boys who caused the Columbine slaughter considered themselves outcasts, Salerno said it was the right of every individual to demonstrate difference and to be accepted.
“It is the differences between us that challenge us to be better than we are,” he said. Salerno concluded of schools, “Not only are they places of learning, but they are sanctuaries.”
The board members supported the superintendent’s stance at that April 1999 meeting.
That May, two Guilderland Police officers were stationed in the schools — one in the middle school and one at the high school. Their role, the superintendent said at the time, was to serve as educators, not just as enforcers.
Several school board members pointed out that Columbine had an armed deputy sheriff on hand at the time the killings took place. Several others raised questions about the officers’ carrying guns and it was ultimately decided they would wear dressed-down uniforms, with their guns concealed in waist packs.
In 2005, a subcommittee of the Safe and Drug-Free Schools Committee came up with a proposal for locking the schools and putting a monitor in front to admit visitors.
The school board, in 2005, was deeply divided on whether to institute a locked-door policy at Guilderland’s five elementary schools. Parents backing the plan urged the board to “listen to the experts” even stating that “any rational person must agree.”
Parents who opposed the plan questioned the reasons for the committee’s fear and the “paranoia” expressed in the report.
Ultimately, in a split vote, the board decided to put monitors at the schools’ front doors and then re-evaluate before proceeding with locking doors.
Budget cutbacks led to the current system where, at the elementary school, locked doors are opened by a buzzer system, operated from the school office.
At the high school and middle school, visitors check in with monitors at a desk stationed near the main entrance.
Also for budget reasons, the school resource officer posts were cut from two — one in the middle school and another in the high school — to one.
With the barrage from the media on the shootings, Wiles expected there would be more call for counseling than have materialized.
“You can’t turn the radio on, the TV on, or look at a newspaper without seeing the images and words, and social media amplifies that,” she said. “Our counselors, social workers, and school psychologists were at the ready.”
However, the greatest concern, she said, has come from parents.
“I totally, totally get that,” said Wiles, who has a son in elementary school. “A lot of parents tried to shield their young children. I know I did.”
Wiles went on, “We let the parents take the lead on whether or not to address the issue.”
The district website posts three links with advice on talking to children about difficult news — from the Public Broadcasting System, from the New York University Child Study Center, and from the National Association of School Psychologists.
“We only addressed it when students brought it up,” said Wiles. “We haven’t had much of that.”
Wiles concluded, “Every day, all the time, we need to keep our children safe. The difficulty is striking a balance between having your building safe and secure, and having it open and part of the community.”
Wiles went this fall with other Guilderland leaders to visit a sister school in China.
“In China,” she said, “every school had a gate, an armed guard, and a gatehouse.”
One school, she said, could only be accessed if street barriers were removed.
“I certainly hope that is not the direction we go,” she said. “Schools are the heart and soul of a community. To close them off would be a sad thing. What happened Friday,” she said of the Connecticut school shooting, “is beyond sad.”
Asked about preventative measures, Wiles said, “Obviously trying to be aware and tuned into students and adults who need help and are upset. Building a culture where people look out for one another and care for one another — that’s what keeps us safe — not excluding anyone from that list.”
Wiles concluded, “We have to ask ourselves, how do we draw people in, engage someone, have happy graduates? If you are not at ease with who you are, you’re going to have a bumpy road.”