Social and emotional wellness — and a stronger sense of community — -as the key to safety and security in local schools dominated the conversation at a public forum Jan. 23 led by Scarsdale School District officials, local mental health professionals, police and clergy.
“Ninety percent of this is about changing behaviors and that’s not something that happens overnight,” said Schools Superintendent Thomas Hagerman.
Scarsdale Edgemont Family Counseling Service Executive Director Jay Genova said children who feel “disconnected” and “disenfranchised” are often the ones who perpetrate violence.
He said it’s important for the community to do their best to make sure everyone feels heard. In addition, he cautioned parents against alienating children simply because they don’t like how they act.
“Many of us want to protect our children,” said Genova. “As parents we may see children that our children are associated with and we may not like their behavior. We may tell our children, ‘Let’s stay away from that child.’”
“How does that impact community safety,” Genova asked the audience. “What are we actually doing? …“Are we making that child more isolated? Are we depriving that child of some valuable, positive connections that they can benefit and learn from?”
Accepting children who participate in behavior of which parents may not approve is not easy, he said, but isolating a child who may be acting out could “create some of the circumstances that lead people towards violent behavior.”
Genova said if Scarsdale residents want a safer community, they need to work to foster a better-connected community.
“That includes people who don’t always look like us, sound like us, believe our beliefs or behave in ways in which we approve,” he said.
Eric Rauschenbach, Director of Special Education and Student Services for Scarsdale Schools, stressed the importance of informing the school district if parents become aware of alarming behavior.
“It is not unusual - when we need to check on the welfare of a child or we need to check on what a student might be saying - for us to find out through a third, or fourth or even fifth parent in the chain of either Facebook or phone calls,” said Rauschenbach. In other words, he said, the person directly involved in the incident has told three or four other people before coming to the district. When this delay in reporting the incident or behavior happens, Rauschenbach added, it is then on the district to sift through the multiple communications to find the genesis of that incident or behavior.
“We would encourage everyone in the community when they’re feeling something is not right or their children are hearing something through social media or seeing something,” Rauschenbach said, “before talking with neighbors or anyone else, give us a call, give the police department a call if it’s appropriate, give your house of worship a call or give Scarsdale Edgemont Family Counseling Services a call.”
In addition to getting a resolution as quickly as possible, reporting the incident early helps avoid the “social ostracization” that occurs through gossip.
Both Rauschenbach and Genova said the school district and the counseling service provide many assets to students who are in need as part of an effort to enhance the social and emotional wellness of each student. However, Genova stressed, having a wealth of counselors is not enough. He said the community must be apart of those efforts.
Genova, Hagerman and Police Chief Andrew Matturro said their departments and organizations work together.
Scarsdale Edgemont Family Counseling services provides mental health professionals to the school district who help with crisis intervention, outreach services and supportive counseling.
The police department practices rapid response techniques that are useful for responding to any school emergency. In addition, Matturro sits on the Westchester County District Attorney’s Office’s school safety committee and the department schedules officers to visit and patrol the schools.
The police chief also said it is not unusual for his department to refer people who come into the police station to use the services provided by Scarsdale Edgemont Family Counseling.
Matturro, like Hagerman and Genova, said he believes it’s always better to address violence in a preventative manner rather than responding to an incident that has already occurred.
Panelists representing the school district addressed the more tactical measures they are taking to ensure safety and security at their schools.
According to Assistant Superintendent for Business and Facilities Stuart Mattey, this summer the district will build new security vestibules at the five elementary schools in time for the 2019-20 school year. The point of the vestibule is to hold visitors in a waiting area before they enter the school. While doing so, a security monitor can check their identification and confirm their reason for visiting the school.
The $65 million bond approved by voters in Feb. 2018 will finance the security vestibules. The bond will also finance new interior and exterior security cameras at each of the schools, also to be installed this summer.
As an interim measure to address security deficits at Quaker Ridge and Heathcote schools, the district recently hired two new security monitors.
During a Question & Answer session, residents asked panelists about the likelihood of hiring armed guards or School Resource Officers to protect the school community.
Rauschenbach explained the difference between armed guards and school resource officers is that armed guards serve mainly in a security role, while SROs are usually trained police officers who interact with students. He added SROs are more common in communities where there might not be healthy relationships between the schools and local police.
Hagerman told the forum audience that some of the most recent school shooting incidents occurred at schools where there were armed police officers and SROs. In certain cases, he said, the armed officers were able to mitigate the tragedy, however there were still some casualties.
He said for Scarsdale, the discussion of whether or not to employ school resource officers is more of a “philosophical question.” He said district officials have heard from parents who want armed guards or SROs in the schools and some who do not want guards.
Hagerman added, acknowledging he had no data in front of him, that more parents appear to prefer leaving armed guards out of their children’s schools.
“The strongest statement the [National Association of School Resource Officers] makes is it mayenhance safety,” Chief Matturro said. “The primary purpose of an SRO is ... teaching and becoming part of the school culture. It is not intended to be an armed guard.”
Hagerman also reiterated, as he has at several board meetings, that the district has completed 50 items on a list of more than 100 priority items to address safety and security, including the installation of a public address system at each school, non-violent crisis intervention training for faculty and staff, and training staff to use portable radios. A full list of completed items is posted on the district’s Safety, Security and Emergency Management webpage. About 70 other items are in the works.
Some residents were not pleased with the format of the forum Q/A session; their questions were collected via note cards, read aloud and answered by a panelist. Roger Neustadt, who planned to read a prepared statement representing the Scarsdale Coalition for Safer Schools, said “Unfortunately, the district administration chose not to allow any community members to speak, despite it being billed as an open forum.”
Neustadt added, “This is right in line with our position that the district administration is primarily concerned with controlling the narrative and avoiding public criticism, wherever possible. While we understand that this is not an unusual format, it was a departure from what had been expected and ensured total control.”
Before the meeting ended, Assistant Superintendent Mattey said the district appreciates input from all residents and encouraged residents to reach out to district officials or the board of education with their safety and security concerns.