Open Letter to the Community About Safety in New Rochelle Schools

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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

Commenting on this Blog entry is closed.

Anonymous on Wed, 01/16/2013 - 15:17
Title: diversity?

I hate to point out the obvious. True diversity would be Trinity and Isaac. It's great that you can tell your friends how open minded you are for sending your kids to NR schools. I'm always taken back by people who claim to choose a community or schools based on diversity. Isn't that making a decision based on something we teach our kids not to do? I think the troubles you're experiencing are due to the fact that our school districts and government put diversity before competence.

robertwillson (not verified) on Wed, 01/16/2013 - 08:22

Safety of the Rochelle Schools is not the end of the problem. We must take care the safety of all the school. If this are really going to happen, then how our kids used to go to the school. After the the incident my kids are refusing to go to school.
-------------------
vêtement pas cher

Anonymous on Wed, 01/09/2013 - 18:29

My children are thriving in the New Rochelle School district. Thanks to so many wonderful teachers and administrators. And thanks to Bob Cox for creating this excellent forum for public discussion. There is a place for everyone on all sides of the political platforms. Public education is the backbone of American society and free america, just as gun ownership is.

Anonymous on Wed, 01/09/2013 - 13:18
Title: NRHS

Glad my kids are out of there. Good school with many things to be gained but many students walk around with knives and who knows what else. I was told this many times.

Anonymous on Wed, 01/09/2013 - 17:11
Title: Not tru

Disorganized and in need of great change YES, but to suggest that you left New Rochelle because the school kids are armed with weapons is both a irresponsible and insulting.

Robert Cox's picture
Robert Cox on Wed, 01/09/2013 - 18:50

Just to be clear, the previous commenter did not say they pulled their kids out of the NR schools because "the school kids are armed with weapons".

It is certainly not the case that ALL kids are armed with weapons or even that most are armed with weapons but there are certainly SOME students in the NR schools armed with weapons.

We just wrote about a kid brining a bag of knives into IEYMS. There was a kid who brought a gun into IEYMS after holding it to the head of a student from ALMS. One former administrator told me of drawerfuls of weapons at Isaac that were confiscated from students. This is certainly the case at NRHS.

Again, it is not ALL or even MOST but certainly it is true that there are a fair number of students who are brining weapons to school.

I doubt that NR is unique in this regard.

That said, I do not see how raising this issue of armed students in NR schools is "irresponsible" or "insulting". It is what it is.

Anonymous on Thu, 01/10/2013 - 21:17
Title: really?

Are we reading the same comment? Why even say” kids walk around with knives and who knows what else” if it was not a one of the reasons that caused them leave NewRo? The implication that their children are safer in a different community that doesn’t have armed children is what makes it insulting.

fearisourenemy on Wed, 01/09/2013 - 12:28

To Vicki and Jordan,

Your letter and observations are an accurate articulation of the of some of the issues with our schools in terms of a lack of accountability and absence of transparency. Unfortunately, the security issue is not a root cause rather another symptom of much greater problems within the City School District of New Rochelle. Prepare yourself to expose layers upon layers of lies.

Anonymous on Wed, 01/09/2013 - 04:17

Thanks to the mayor and his cronies who have destroyed this city. They have allowed every enabling liberal greed monger to suck this city dry. The schools are suffering cause this mayor gave the house away and there's no money for the school district. Don't let the door hit ya in the a$$ on the way out buddy.

Anonymous on Wed, 01/09/2013 - 19:36

Why is NR's city budget is $60 million higher than Mt. Vernon's? $153 million for New Ro & $93 million for Mt. Vernon.

Anyone know? Mt. Vernon's population in 67,000 & New Rochelle 77,000.

Anonymous on Thu, 01/10/2013 - 05:32

never thought of that

Anonymous on Wed, 01/09/2013 - 23:52

Instead of asking why New Rochelle's budget is higher than Mount Vernon (not a district anyone would want to emulate), you should be asking why is our district spending ranked 39th out of 43 in the entire county. We spend less per capita than nearly every other district. No wonder there are so many problems.

YOU GET WHAT YOU PAY FOR!!

Anonymous on Thu, 01/10/2013 - 00:08

I'll tell you why our budget is so much higher. New Rochelle has always had an out of district student problem. Countless students from Mt. Vernon and the Bronx attend NR schools (without paying tuition) because no real or concrete evidence of residency is required. We simply have more children attending our schools that we bring in from tax payer revenue. Mr. Cox has brought up this issue on numerous occasions. Mr. Organisciak and the NRBOE has repeatedly refused to audit student addresses or legal guardianship. Ironically, Mr. Organisciak's hometown school district does this every few years to ensure tax payers are not getting ripped off and students within the district are receiving maximum services for their school tax dollars.

I am tired of paying inflated school taxes. Why is this not an issue for other New Rochelle residents?

Anonymous on Thu, 01/10/2013 - 15:10

I wasn't talking about school budgets, but rather the city budget. Not that I want to emulate Mt. Vernon, but I bet they have more police calls ect. & $60 million's a lot of dough. Our streets are just as bad or worse than Mt. Vernon's so I wonder where all the money's going.

And don't tell me its services, they get their garbage picked up too. And I'm sure if you call 911 in Mt. Vernon the police, ems or fd will come. School taxes are a big part of the problem but we also pay the county & city and the NR's current leadership seems to think bigger is better.

Anonymous on Wed, 01/09/2013 - 17:25

We need to involve the local news and put New Rochelle in the public eye so that Mayor Branson and his 'team' can concentrate on our city rather than his future public career. For a city of 77,000 we should have had tightly secured schools with protocols in place long before this tragedy at Sandy Hook. We need to keep talking about it and telling City Hall that if they don't move faster for 2013, only a tragedy will change things. Ward school is the same as Davis. Easy to enter and pick up is a free for all. The basic security is not enough. Principal Miele is excellent but this needs to be a citywide initiative that may just need to be pushed through by the parents.

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