Dear Friends and Neighbors,
More than four years ago, we chose to leave Larchmont, where we had lived for seven years, and move to New Rochelle for its more diverse community, rigorous academic reputation, and beautiful homes. We now have one child at Davis, one at Albert Leonard, and one at the high school. It is with pride that we tell old friends in Larchmont and Mamaroneck that in many ways we feel the schools here are superior and the community is very friendly and down to earth. However, we are troubled by the district’s lack of transparency and reluctance to communicate with and involve the community in the many matters that affect the education and welfare of our children.
We write this letter to share with you the source of our distress at the Davis safety meeting last Thursday night. Still shaken by the tragedy in Connecticut, we find that the safety of our children is an emotionally charged issue for us, as it is for many parents. So while we were grateful to see the district finally acknowledge parent concerns by devoting a meeting to safety and security (at least in our elementary schools), we were disturbed by some of the things we heard there.
The last New Rochelle Board of Education meeting, held at NRHS on December 18th, provides a good illustration of the Board’s priorities, and is important for anyone who wants to understand why we and many others in the community felt compelled to speak out last Thursday. For years, members of our community have been urging district officials to rectify flaws in the safety and security of New Rochelle schools and to be more transparent about the incidents that occur. Yet even on the heels of the massacre in Newtown, in contrast to many neighboring districts, which invited stunned parents to special town meetings to address the safety and security of their schools, ours did not even have security on the agenda, and district Director of Security, Bruce Daniele, was not even present at the meeting.
Nevertheless, we and a number of other members of the community, came to the meeting to voice our concerns to the administration directly. After all the matters on the agenda were completed, Superintendent Richard Organisciak addressed the Sandy Hook tragedy in a set of prepared remarks and a handout about the state of the District’s safety and emergency response plans and procedures. However, Mr. Organisciak’s laundry list of points about our schools’ safety raised more questions than it answered. For example, he opened by stating flatly that “All School Safety Plans and Procedural Manuals are current.” But in fact, other than the high school, the safety plans for New Rochelle’s schools are outdated and more current versions are only now being put together. The District itself is still operating under a safety plan that dates from 2009-2010.
Mr. Organisciak also claimed “All schools have practiced lock-down drills in the last year and a half.” Based on inquiries of our children and those of many of our friends, none of whom can recall ever having participated in a lock-down drill, we question how this statement can be accurate. Our children are aware of fire drills only. The first lockdown drill one of our three children said she ever experienced was held at Davis last Wednesday, two weeks after the Board meeting, and the day before the school held its meeting with parents to discuss its safety and security procedures. You may want to ask your own kids what drills they can recall their schools conducting.
He also stated that the “School Safety Plan and Procedural Manuals are being reviewed with the Police and Fire Departments.” Although this is true, it leaves out some alarming facts. Until the current review began (and evidently it only began that day (December 18th), when school officials personally delivered to the NRPD a draft of the 2012 high school safety plan), the only school level plans on file with the NRPD dated from 2006 for the high school and 2001 for all the other schools. This, contrary to Mr. Organisciak’s claim at the Davis safety meeting, is not just a matter of paperwork, because school officials are supposed to coordinate evacuation drills with local emergency officials and in its most recent, district-wide “early dismissal/evacuation drill," no police or fire officials were present at any of the schools or notified or even aware of the drills.
It wasn’t until close to 10:00pm, nearly three hours after the BOE meeting had begun, that the community was given an opportunity to have its voice heard. At this point, the Board informed those of us waiting patiently to comment or ask questions that, due to time constraints and the number of people who wished to speak (there were 12), she would allow each of us only three minutes (as opposed to the standard five minutes for registered speakers). When their allotted time ended, speakers were cut off, sometimes in mid-sentence. At times, the Board threatened to end public comment entirely. And when several parents asked if the Board would devote a meeting solely to the issue of security, Superintendent Organisciak said they would consider it, but would not commit.
Many parents, although they may not know all of these facts, know that many things are not handled properly, and that adherence to protocols and procedures in our schools is sloppy at best. That is why so many people felt compelled to speak out at the Davis safety meeting last Thursday, to advise the administration that doors are frequently unlocked, not just at Davis but at other schools as well, that the dismissal procedures need to be tightened, that often parents find out about incidents through their children or from media reports rather than from the schools, that the schools are not providing adequate training to their teachers and security staff, and that they are not conducting adequate lockdown, lockout, evacuation and other drills with faculty and students. To top it all off, the latest draft of the updated 2012-2013 School Safety Plan for Davis, which is required under the S.A.V.E. law to be kept confidential, was posted on the school’s website! In other words, not only is the district’s “paperwork” as Mr. Organisciak characterized it, out of compliance, but the district’s schools don’t consistently follow their own safety protocols and procedures.
It is not a condemnation of our school system, or a personal attack on people who work hard to make our schools as great as they are, to admit there are problems here that need fixing. To his credit, Principal William Harrell admitted there is still a long way to go and changes still need to be made to make Davis safer and more secure. However, we left that meeting at Davis just as we had left the previous BOE meeting—distraught and angry, not just by how much work needs to be done to address very real issues of safety and security, but because so many in the community seemed to accept the Administration’s assertion that it is moving forward when it is refusing to examine or even acknowledge what they have done wrong and what needs to be fixed. And we certainly don’t think that people who demand honesty and accountability from school district officials deserve to be shouted down at public meetings. Other districts such as Scarsdale, Rye, Harrison and Mamaroneck, have better reputations not because they are perfect, but because they are willing to acknowledge what is unsatisfactory, and work with the community and/or outside expertise, to do what is necessary to make it better.
Just as it has been for this country, we are hoping that the recent tragedy may at least serve as a wake-up call. We do not believe it is possible to guard against every kind of attack, nor do we advocate turning our schools into fortresses, but we do believe this district can and must do a better job of preparing and training our incredible teachers and children so that they know what to do in the event of an emergency. The teachers and students of Newtown were more prepared than we are. Their district not only had emergency response plans in place, these plans were shared with parents, ingrained in teachers, and practiced consistently at the schools by teachers with their students. Teachers and parents at Sandy Hook Elementary referred to this preparedness in the news and how it helped them save so many young lives.
There is no reason New Rochelle schools cannot be the best in the county. We have outstanding teachers and students. We have incredible resources. Our community is rich in culture and diversity. But to make our schools better and safer, we need to ask the right questions and demand better responses from our district.
We were accused by some last Thursday night of having no right to be “upset” about the current level of safety and security at our children’s schools. We hope you now understand why we are indeed upset, and consider joining us in continuing to urge our district to fulfill its promise and obligation “to provide a safe and effective learning environment” in all of New Rochelle’s schools, as required by The Safe School Against Violence in Education (S.A.V.E.) law.
While the Board still does not have safety on its agenda, please consider coming to the BOE meeting tonight to show your concern for our schools and community. The meeting is in the auditorium of Campus School at 50 Washington, Ave. at 7:00pm.
Thanks for listening,
Vicki Lesser and Jordan Goldstein