Written by: Leah Rae
MAHOPAC — A school security forum organized in memory of the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre took on even more urgency Saturday in the aftermath of the Boston terrorist bombings.
The attack at Sandy Hook focused attention on security at elementary schools, after much of the emphasis had been at the upper grade levels, Putnam County Sheriff Donald Smith said. The attack in Boston underscored an ever-present threat and the high stakes of any security effort.
“We have to be right every time,” Smith said. “The terrorists only have to be right once.”
The discussion organized by state Sen. Greg Ball, R-Patterson, did not touch on gun control, but centered on how to guard against intruders and identify students with mental health needs.
There was wide praise for the work of school resource officers, deputies in the Sheriff’s Department who are specially trained to work with children on issues like drug abuse and bullying. But they are a costly prospect for tight-spending school districts. Salary and benefit costs are generally split between the county and schools.
“They form relationships that are so powerful that they help head a lot of things off at the pass,” Mahopac Superintendent Tom Manko said. Such officers are stationed at both the middle and high schools. There are a total of eight across Putnam County districts.
Putnam is working on an agreement to hire retired officers as “special patrol officers” for an hourly rate with no benefits, said Legislator Dini LoBue, R-Mahopac. The Mahopac district would receive such assistance as a pilot project, she said. The Sheriff’s Department would train the officers, who unlike the resource officers would work on security only.
Haldane Superintendent Mark Villanti stressed the power of “intel,” and said schools need to be vigilant, but not fearful. It was an observant neighbor who broke the case in the Boston marathon bombing, he said.
“You have power,” he told the parents and community members present. “Your power is to be perceptive of your neighbors, what’s going on in your own household, as parents, not being afraid to call up a police officer or community member. … We listen to what you have to say so that we can prevent a disastrous thing from occurring.”
Former District Attorney Kevin Wright echoed that advice later, tweaking a popular slogan: “If you see something, it’s OK to say something.”
Several speakers lamented budget cuts that have reduced the number of mental health counselors at school and in the community — along with the number of schoolteachers, who can also detect a student in need of help.
Mental health training is critical so that bipolar disorder and schizophrenia can be identified at high school age, when conditions often appear as belligerent behavior, said Lorraine Bushnell, a board member of the National Alliance on Mental Illness of Putnam County. A trained professional can make the difference between a young person being sent to the hospital or to jail, she said.
Noting that many perpetrators of violence were also victims of bullying, Carmel High School student Steven Youssef said anti-bullying programs have helped to address the root of the problem. With such programs, “we’re getting the ball rolling,” he said.
After listening to the discussion, Carmel school social worker Joan Santoriello emphasized the big picture.
“It really is about community,” she said. Even custodians and cafeteria workers have to “aspire and walk the walk,” she said. “We all deserve to be in a safe climate and a safe school. It’s about everyone reaching out.” (ARTICLE)