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School Security

The national news is replete with tragic stories about school shootings.  In small rural districts like Lansing you don't expect such horror stories, but School Superintendent Chris Pettograsso told the Board of Education that doesn't mean the district isn't preparing for any eventuality.  In recent years all three school buildings have beeen reconfigured for security, including installation of security cameras, moving the main office to the main entrance of each building and tightening up visitor sign-in procedures, among many other measures.

"There is no way I'll ever say, 'We're secure, nothing's going to happen'," she said. "We've got to make sure we're always preventing and minimizing whatever situations will exist."

Pettograsso said New York State requires district-wide school safety, building level emergency response, district-wide emergency response, and post-incident response teams.

"At large schools they might be three completely different groups of people," Pettograsso said..  Here it's pretty much the same team in all situations, except the district-wide team will have more people.  So you'll see a lot of repetitiveness in our building level plans."

Districts are also required to develop those safety plans.  A district-wide safety plan includes an overview of strategies, the campus, terms, and other basic security items.  Building level emergency response plans are a new requirement.  This plan uses universal state language.

"If I'm an officer in Albany or an officer here and I make a response to a situation, it's the same language," Pettograsso said.

Pettograsso said the leadership team works with various resources, including FEMA, which will be conducting an hour-long training session for school leaders and supervisors in incident command.

"We're not going to do active shooter drills with our staff and we're not going to do significant drills, but as long as our leadership team and our supervisors are trained we can get that information to our emergency response teams.  We have five or six faculty or staff people on each team that are invested in this and have volunteered their time to be part of this.  Some of them are EMTs, some are firefighters.  So we have good staff who are invested in this."

District officials have made much of the Dignity for For All Students Act (DASA), but the act doesn't simply encourage good behavior.  It also includes a formal reporting procedure that includes careful investigation of incidents that inform consequences that may be inflicted on students, especially when there is repeated harassment of their fellow students.

Pettograsso said faculty and staff will undergo training for dealing with any single or ongoing act of harassment.  A form is readily available for reporting harassment.  District officials fill out the form for younger students, first determining whether it should be processed through DASA or in-house.  Dignity Act Coordinators are trained to help older students fill out the forms.  Pettograsso said that if a student doesn't want to go through the DASA process district officials pursue the incident internally.  The procedure is to investigate complaints, often with the participation of the district's legal team.  The incident is, or is not verified.

"It doesn't stop at being verified," Pettograsso said.  "We still want to make sure that the student feels, whatever the perception of the situation was, that we're educating.  If it is verified you have to make a very specific plan.  It has to be reported to the State Education Department at the time it happened, and also report all the incidents at the end of the year, broken down by demographics, what the final discipline was, and so on.  It's pretty well documented, and it has to be retained until that student is 27 years old."

The record retaining requirement only applies to verified reports.  If it is not verified the record is filed, but it goes no further.  Pettograsso said that there are not many official discrimination or harassment complaints have been filed, with the majority coming from the high school.  She said there is a lot of unkind behavior that does not meet the definitions of discrimination or harassment.

Pettograsso said that while there is zero tolerance for bullying or discrimination, a zero tolerance policy is not the right approach because it runs the risk of sweeping good students who mke a mistake under the rug with habitual bullies.  Last year the school psychologists at the high school and middle school were made full time to help address incidents and issues like this.

"We've tried to look at every situation," she said.  "Fortunately we're in a small enough district that we can talk to students, find out the root cause, and then determine what is needed for this situation.  Zero tolerance would be that every child that (is found to have instigated discriminatory or harassing incidents) would be suspended from school for five days.  That might not be the right decision for every student in every situation.  What we try to say is that behavior is not going to be tolerated.  We do encourage students to come talk to us.  We counsel and we educate.  If it happens more than once that level of consequence is going to increase in time to be significant enough that you might be suspended for a long period of time.  But if a child makes a mistake and gets angry at lunch and says something because another person did something... the last thing you want to do is take them out of school and make them feel like they don't belong."

She added that the best defense against harassment and discrimination is a community of students who don't tolerate bad behavior, and who will speak up when they observe it.

"That is the only way it really starts to diminish," she said. "We can do all this, but when you have empowered groups of students who say that's wrong it is effective.  That's where we need to get more supports in and more time for student groups.  That's where zero tolerance comes in - when you friend says 'cut it out'."

Pettograsso reported that the most frequent offenses take place in the older middle school grades, then the frequency diminishes in the high school.  She attributed that, in part, to development of maturity, and said the middle school has implemented Positive Behavior Intervention System (PBIS), a building-wide approach to addressing and supporting positive behaviors.  The process includes acknowledging mistakes and using them to find ways to improve behavior.

She also said the district will be collecting data from stakeholder groups to get a snapshot of how accepted and safe students feel in the Lansing schools.

"Our focus this year is safety," she said. "It's not going to be about cameras.  It's not going to be about a ton of security.  It's really going to be about how do you feel in our school.  We're going to do a lot of surveying of students faculty, staff, and families."

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