In the wake of yesterday's awful events we all need to ask "Are New Rochelle Public Schools Prepared for Active Shooter Invasion?"
The short answer is an unequivocal "no".
As the father of four children, two of them graduates of New Rochelle High School and two currently enrolled in our public schools, I find it difficult to even talk about the tragedy at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT. I am sure I am not alone.
I have been Newtown a number of times. My nephew, Father Luke Suarez, is a priest assigned to St. Rose of Lima Roman Catholic Church in Newtown. His grandparents are long-time residents of New Rochelle. Father Luke has visited New Rochelle many times. St. Rose church and parochial school is just down the road from Sandy Hook elementary school and many students from the public school attend CCD classes at St. Rose.
Seven Ten of my nephew's parishioners were killed yesterday - 8 children as well as alleged mass murder Adam Lanza and his mother. He was called by police to the fire house within minutes of the shooting as part of the team set up to receive parents of the victims. Our prayers here at Talk of the Sound go out to the victims, the families, friends, neighbors and those supporting them as they struggle to comprehend, as we all do, an unspeakable tragedy.
As a parent, it is hard not to see the news coverage and wonder "could something like this happen at my child's school?"
While children need to be assured about yesterday's events, adults in New Rochelle need to start asking some tough questions. If they start asking, they are not going to like the answers they're getting. I know. I have been asking these questions for the past several years, documenting one security failure after another in our schools -- rapes, stabbings, guns, intruders hiding in classroom closets.
The sad fact is that the New Rochelle public schools are woefully unprepared for any crisis let alone an active shooter invasion.
Except for the high school our public schools do not even have updated safety plans in place. Every school in New York is required under the S.A.V.E. legislation to have a plan in place, updated once a year, and practiced in coordination with local fire and police. Many of the safety plans in New Rochelle are outdated. They refer to employees who no longer work for the district, contain outdated protocols and procedures and are not tested through evacuation drills. Many of the plan documents still refer to Linda Kelly as the Schools Superintendent.
I have written about this many times, spoken on this topic before the board and made it a campaign issue when I ran for school board in 2011. Time and time again the New Rochelle Board of Education has dismissed my calls for addressing the abysmal security situation in New Rochelle where personnel are more likely to be patronage hires and various flunkies than fully-trained security officers.
What New Rochelle needs is to hire a firm run by experts to conduct a professional security vulnerability and crisis readiness assessments at our schools, to evaluate personnel, develop proper plans and train security teams at each school. We need school leadership that is less worried about getting free golf lessons and more worried about protecting our children.
We need to hire an outside firm because the school district does not have a single employee who is professionally qualified to perform such an assessment. Our current director of school security is a retired detective from the New Rochelle Police Department with no supervisory experience and no background in security vulnerability and crisis readiness assessment. Of the three security officers under him just one has any law enforcement experience.
A 2011 Freedom of Information request filed with the New York State Department of State which licenses security guards listed only eight people as licensed under the City School District of New Rochelle. Seven of the eight had expired licenses -- one was dead. On the list was Joe Johnstone who many will recall retired years ago.
All in all, the entire safety planning situation in New Rochelle is a sick joke.
Parents are entitled to see copies of a summary of their child's schools plan and the entire District-wide Plan. Try it. You will be likely told that the information is confidential "for the safety of the children". Don't buy it. They don't want to show you any documents because parents will see that the district does not have current, updated plans for half the schools or an updated district-wide plan.
But it's not like there are ever incidents at our schools, right?
Talk of the Sound has reported on numerous incidents that require a "lockdown/lockout" including a number of violent incidents or incidents involving weapons in the schools.
Last month, Isaac Young received a report from administrators at Albert Leonard that an Isaac student may be in the building armed with a gun after the student placed the gun to the head of an Albert Leonard 6th-grader on a school bus then exited the bus at Isaac. Police were not called and the school was not put on lockdown. It later turned out the gun was a BB gun but school officials had no way to know that and were required to treat the gun as an active threat until proven otherwise. That did not happen.
In September, police received a report of "shots fired" after a robbery on Drake Avenue. For six hours, police engaged in a manhunt for what was initially thought to be an active shooter search near Jefferson School. Police later stated that reports their robbery suspect had displayed or used a weapon were erroneous. Jefferson School was put on lockdown for three hours. During the manhunt which involved officers from multiple jurisdictions, two helicopters and a bloodhound, the suspect was chased from the roof of a house on Park Ridge, the street behind the school, and onto the the Jefferson School play fields, coming within less than 100 feet of the back entrance to the school. Ten minutes before the students were to be released from the school, the suspect was located at D'Onofrio Field, two blocks from the school. As the police rushed to chase the suspect, students were inexplicably released. At the school, parents were told by school officials that the suspect had not come onto school property. Many parents unaware of the threat walked with their children directly into area where the police were actively searching.
The Security Director for New Rochelle schools never came to the scene that day.
In 2010, the Barnard School Principal waited several hours before calling police to report an intruder inside Barnard school. A man was found by teaching assistant hiding in a closet in a second floor classroom. The school was not put on lockdown. Despite this, the Principal sent home a note and made robocalls to parents telling them the school was put on lockdown because a man had been observed outside the building near a greenhouse.
The Security Director for New Rochelle schools never came to the scene that day either.
In 2008, a student was stabbed by another student at New Rochelle High School. The assailant fled with the weapon. The school was never put on lockdown.
There have many other security incidents in between.
Many parents have come to discover that the school district's robocall system contains inaccurate information -- or no information at all. Some parents who speak only Spanish get calls in English; English-only speakers get calls in Spanish.
Any resident who has walked the halls of the middle schools or high school knows that most security guards spend 90% of their time sitting in a chair reading a book or newspaper. They routinely fail to challenge visitors to the school including those walking in hallways, unescorted, without a security pass sticker. I know. I routinely remove the sticker when visiting schools to see if anyone will challenge my presence in the building. No one ever does.
No students are supposed to be allowed off school grounds during school hours. Yet, if you visit on a given weekday, you will find over a hundred students from the high school on North Avenue hanging out near Chicken Joe's and McDonald's. Among them you will find adults wearing New Rochelle Security shirts.
Last June a student crossing the street at that same corner was struck by a car and went into a seizure.
Few of the security guards are licensed by the school district, some were hired despite being ineligible under civil service laws, some are engaged in illegal sexual acts with students or possess or sell illegal drugs. Last year, a security guard at the high school was detained at ShopRite for shoplifting -- while wearing her New Rochelle School Security shirt. Bruce Daniele was called to the store and the woman was released at his request.
Most disturbing of all is the school's security crisis plans or "safety plans".
Several years ago it was determined that the plans were all significantly out of date. Many of them referred to protocols and procedures that were obsolete and referenced personnel no longer employe by the district. Despite claims in 2009 that the plans would be updated only one, the plan at New Rochelle High School, has been updated by the end of the 2011-12 school year. The group tasked with updating the plans rarely meets. Several more updated plans were put together this fall but have yet to be promulgated, implemented or practice, about half the schools have no current plan. There is no updated district-wide plan.
As part of its crisis management, school officials are required to coordinate evacuation drills with local emergency officials. As part of a recent, district-wide "early dismissal/evacuation drill" no police or fire officials were present at any of the schools. Both departments confirmed that they were never notified of the "early dismissal/evacuation drill" and so unaware of it.
The plans all list alternative "rally points" where children are to be taken in the event of an incident at the school. A review of these plans showed that the alternative locations -- area colleges, beach clubs and other schools -- were unaware of their role in the district's safety plans.
Staff, administrators and students are supposed to be trained regularly on emergency preparedness. This does not happen. After a recent post-Sandy power outage when school was in session, there was no power at all because the antiquated emergency generator failed. The batteries in flashlights stored at points throughout the building, not checked for years, were all dead. Staff had to move throughout the building in the dark to get to the main office to get batteries.
Beyond all of this is the mission of school security officials. The default posture of district security personnel is "inward" not "outward". Security personnel are allocated based on the need to deal with crowd control and physical altercations involving students. The older and bigger the students the more security guards that are assigned. That is why elementary schools are assigned one security guard and the high school has dozens.
With all due respect to the personnel assigned to the elementary schools, they do not have the training or physical strength to deal with a person trying to force their way into the school. During the Barnard intruder incident no one was on post for an hour while the "guard" went to lunch; a note was left telling people to check in at the main office. Apparently the intruder neglected to check-in with one of the school secretaries before roaming around the building at will.
In 2010, a parent forced entry into Columbus Elementary School, past the security guard, entered a classroom and physically assaulted a teacher in front of the class.
The Security Director for New Rochelle schools never came to the scene that day either.
The security situation in the New Rochelle schools is a sick joke. As a parent who has been ringing this bell for years, I can only beg that parents will finally heed the warnings I have made for the past five years.
Every parent needs to ask school administrators direct questions and demand detailed, fully-articulated, documented answers:
- What are the school's crisis management plans?
- How will the school communicate with me during an emergency?
- Does the school have an active shooter response plan?
- Are staff, administrators and students trained regularly on emergency preparedness?
- Do students have alternate escape routes from their classrooms?
- How is access controlled within the school and its classrooms during the day?
- How are visitors at the school monitored?
- When does the school go into lockdown?
The mass shooting in Connecticut, so close to New Rochelle and with so many connections to New Rochelle residents, should be a wake up call.
Parents need to realize that school officials are simply not being truthful about school security. We need an honest, forthright and professional assessment of our schools security needs. We need to end a culture that places hiring from the friends and family network, providing patronage to various constituencies in New Rochelle, ahead of the safety of our children.
The sad fact is that if parents in New Rochelle and across this country do not start asking the right questions and demand adequate responses from our schools this will probably not be the last time that we see a tragedy of this magnitude.
UPDATE: The New Rochelle Board of Education meets Tuesday December 18th at the Linda Kelly Theater at New Rochelle High School. School security is not on the agenda published last week but will likely be added with some remarks during the Superintendent's Report. During the meeting there is a Public Discussion period at which these and other issues will be raised by myself and others. We will be expanding on the issues raised here and providing information never disclosed to the public before. This is a very important issue. If you have any questions about this feel free to contact me.