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Scarsdale Superintendent Responding To Community Concerns

The superintendent updated parents and the school community on what the district is doing and has been doing to keep schools safe.

The Scarsdale Superintendent of Schools Dr. Michael McGill is continuing to work with the community, including the Scarsdale Police Department, on school safety here in Scarsdale.

In the wake of the Newtown school shootings, the Scarsdale schools and the SPD have been working together to reassure parents, students and staff.

Prior to the Newtown tragedy, the schools and the SPD have worked together on safety procedures, drills and protocols. Now, they are continuing their safety measures and increasing a police presence on the school campuses.

The following is the latest message from Superintendent of McGill to the school community:

Since last week, families across the nation have been caught up in the tragic aftermath of the events in Newtown. As you may imagine, also, I've heard from some of you about our schools' preparedness, possible security measures for the future, and related matters. And like President Obama, I've been reflecting on the larger meaning of these last days. 

To start, I just want to reassure you that I hear and understand our community's profound concern about the savagery in neighboring Connecticut and about the possibility that something similar might happen here in Scarsdale. Like you, I invest immense hope and love in my children and grandchildren. I, too, have been deeply shaken.

In addition, as I said to one of my correspondents over the weekend,  I know the superintendent and other educators in Newtown. I identify strongly with them and with the families in that community. I cannot imagine the horror they are going through. It is the last thing in the world I would ever want to happen here or anyplace else. I take our situation very seriously.

As I said in Friday's email, and as the Scarsdale Police reaffirmed today, they had and have absolutely no information to suggest that any immediate or extended threat exists in Scarsdale. 

For us this morning, a priority was to be a source of stability, predictability and normality for our pupils.  As I hope you will hear from your child or children, our students had a good day. The National School Psychologists' guidelines that I referenced on Friday describe the importance of providing children a truthful but reassuring environment and of giving more direct support in individual cases, where appropriate. This was and will be our aim as we go forward.

Teachers, counselors and school leaders are differentiating their responses to students, depending on children's age and individual readiness. For example, the high school found it appropriate to observe a minute of silence at the beginning of the day; that seemed less appropriate where younger children were concerned. Please feel free to contact the principal if you're interested in knowing more about the approach in your child's building.

Of equal priority was our effort to enforce existing security protocols. Several of the emails I received, as well as some emails circulating in the community, expressed concern that our current procedures should be strengthened and that enforcement is inconsistent. We'll be reviewing the protocols in the very near future with an eye to improvement; I'll say more about that in a moment.  Right now, we need to be certain that we're doing what we're supposed to be doing already. 

Yesterday I directed principals to ensure that doors are locked where and when they should be, and that visitors to the elementary schools are being admitted by buzzer only after they've been identified on camera. Assistant Superintendent Linda Purvis, head of the District safety team, has also visited each of the buildings in person (Monday) to double check on compliance. The Scarsdale Police enhanced their presence at schools on Friday and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.

I met (Monday) with Police Chief John Brogan and members of his staff, school principals and representatives of the Parent Teacher Council, Scarsdale-Edgemont Family Counseling Service, and the Community Support Council.  Among the points we covered:

  • As the result of our ongoing relationship with the Police Department, the High School had already scheduled a lockdown drill for the spring, as well as a related rapid response drill involving a police tactical force. We've been conducting these kinds of exercises in our schools for some years.  Lockdowns involve students and teachers; rapid response drills take place after school and involve police and sometimes teachers. Also, a series of transportation/evacuation drills had already been scheduled for the spring. 
  • For some years, the Police Department has made it a practice to have officers pay randomly scheduled visits to the Middle and High Schools.  In January, they will begin to extend these "meet and greets" to the elementary schools. We believe children may appreciate uniformed officers' periodic visits, understanding that they are simply part of the ordinary course and not occasions for concern. Principals will be in touch with parents to say more about the drop-ins.
  • For any student or adult in need of support, the Scarsdale Edgemont Family Counseling Service will be open during the upcoming holiday. The telephone number is 723-3281.

Over the weekend, I received a number of suggestions about current and possible future security provisions. In some cases, it was clear that the writer didn't know that the schools are in an ongoing dialogue with the Scarsdale Police; that there are regional, community and school safety teams with safety plans; that the school safety teams meet quarterly; that the schools do conduct safety drills including lockdown drills; and that the police have detailed floor plans of, and conduct training exercises in, our buildings.

We don't discuss a number of these arrangements very publicly because of security considerations. If you're interested in more detail, however, you can contact Assistant Superintendent Linda Purvis.

In other cases, writers offered thoughts about ways we might improve security. These ranged from the observation that current procedures are too lax, as I said before, to the recommendation that we hire guards for each door, to less conventional and more drastic alternatives. Now, while we're all dealing with the immediate impact of Newtown, probably isn't the best time to review these ideas. However, we will convene the District Safety Team shortly after the new year and begin to consider both existing practices and ways we might reasonably strengthen them. As in the past, we will involve the police and parent leadership in this process. We've also used the services of a security consulting firm and will do so again.

Each time we've had these conversations, everyone involved has had to wrestle with the difficult balance between having a secure school and having a school that's an accessible part of its community. In effect, we embark on a small version of our national discussion about the degree to which we're going to be an open society or one that's fortified. The tensions are difficult to resolve, and the answers rarely satisfy everyone entirely. What we can promise is a sincere effort to take the issues very seriously and to arrive at the most responsible decisions possible.  If you do have ideas you'd like to share, I'd invite you to email your building principal and, again, to copy Linda Purvis. 

Finally, I've been speaking about measures we will take to safeguard our children here in Scarsdale. As I said, we are addressing the immediate situation.  We'll also improve our local protocols as thoughtfully and responsibly as possible. Nonetheless - and this is a difficult truth - we have to understand that whatever we do, we're just tinkering around the edges of the larger problem.

Schools across the country can lock their doors and put guards in the halls, but until this nation takes gun control seriously and until we address the scourge of mental illness a lot more effectively than we do today, more tragedies will occur. 

Enough is enough. Political forces may be aligned in opposition to rational firearms laws.  The mechanics of funding and service delivery may well be the smallest part of the mental health problem; the perpetrator of the Newtown massacre evidently came from a middle class family and in foresight, at least, didn't appear to be a danger to others. The prospect of dealing with these issues is daunting. 

Nonetheless, if we want to channel our anger and our grief in a positive direction, we'll invest ourselves in addressing these challenges. The Lower Hudson Council of School Superintendents has agreed to make firearms control a policy priority. Other organizations and each of us, individually, can take similar action.   

I assure you of my personal commitment to safeguard our children. I promise you that our professional and support staffs are equally committed to that end.  And I urge us all to do whatever is in our power to move our nation in the direction of sanity and greater humanity. 

The innocent children of Newtown and their brave teachers deserve a fitting memorial. May we and the rest of America imbue their sacrifice with positive meaning.

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