What happens when someone bent on violence enters a school?

“This is what keeps me up at night,” District Attorney Anthony Scarpino Jr. said Sept. 18 at the first meeting of the new Westchester County School Safety Commission.

According to the district attorney’s office, the commission’s mission is “to implement best practices in safety evaluation and procedures in schools of all levels throughout Westchester County to keep our students safe in the event of a credible threat or violent incident.”

Comprised of politicians, mental health experts and leaders representing schools, students, educators, the group’s immediate goal is to boost communication and cooperation between schools and local law enforcement and issue guidelines for countywide protocols.

Meanwhile at the County Center this week, more than 100 school, town and police personnel gathered for an array of active shooting drills organized by the Department of Emergency Services and the Department of Public Safety.

Two years ago, Scarsdale contracted with Altaris, a school safety and security management firm, to help implement best practices and training for preparedness, crisis prevention and intervention. The district has also earmarked funds for safety improvements, including building security vestibules at the district’s five elementary schools.

This week, the district named Altaris’ Michael Spedaliere, a retired police officer, as its new chief of security and emergency management. He will be developing a unified approach for all seven schools to work together and react effectively in the face of a crisis.

The district already provides support for the safety and security through district committees, psychologists and counselors. In addition, the district has in place its state-mandated Emergency Management Plan, which addresses a range of safety threats, from bullying and harassment to catastrophic natural or manmade events.

At a PTA-sponsored panel in May, some Scarsdale parents called for armed guards in the town’s schools, saying they felt more secure seeing armed personnel in public places and their children would as well. Officials on the panel questioned whether that solution would mesh with the values of the community or whether it might negatively change the tenor of the school environment.

However, reports on school safety have revealed that in most incidents the attacker’s plan was known before the incident took place and many school shooters have exhibited behaviors that indicated a need for help prior to taking up a weapon.

So the more important safety net — beyond the physical barriers — is to pay attention to those in need of counseling, support and empathy.

Be mindful of what other people may be going though. And if you’re going through something painful or difficult, it’s worth reaching out for help. 

Personal crisis management and safety nets should be on par with emergency management, with more investment in mental health services and support treatment of behavioral issues. Scarsdale High School is making strides in those areas through a social-emotional support program launched two years ago.

Meanwhile, state legislators are grappling with the so-called Red Flag Law, a bill that, if passed, would empower community members to report concerns about people in crisis. It would give law enforcers and those in the legal system leeway to temporarily take away weapons from those who may harm themselves or others.

To its credit, Scarsdale High School already has a Red Flag-like system in place. Students are encouraged in civ ed advisory groups, health classes and counseling sessions to help identify peers who might be in need of social or emotional support.

In addition, youth outreach workers in the middle and high schools provide support, while Scarsdale Edgemont Family Counseling Service and PTA programs provide tools for parents to help younger children develop civil, respectful and considerate behavior and form habits that will last a lifetime and have a positive influence on the world.

These kinds of prevention and intervention are surely more effective in helping schoolchildren feel safe than all the drills, vestibules and security guards combined.

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