OPEN LETTER TO NEW ROCHELLE BOARD OF EDUCATION: Flawed Logic in New Policy of Consultation Before Evacuation at New Rochelle Schools

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The New Rochelle Board of Education will discuss tonight a revision to the previously approved building-level safety plans. This in the wake of a series of threats phoned into New Rochelle High School over the past month.

Last week I wrote a letter to all board members, several senior level administrators as well as City Council Members and senior staff at City Hall and NRPD. The letter is below.

In the days since I wrote that letter there have been two new developments.

1. The school district issued an Open Letter of its own on the Anniversary of the Sandy Hook tragedy, To The New Rochelle Community on Post-Sandy Hook Safety Procedures, which listed "specific measures have been taken throughout the school system to provide a safe environment for our students and staff":

-Hiring a District Safety Administrator to coordinate and supervise safety practices
-Installing a keyless entry and camera/buzzer system in our elementary schools
-Redesigning the arrival and dismissal procedures in all of our schools
-Reducing points of entry at New Rochelle High School
-Routine screening of all school visitors
-Adding police support to direct traffic at elementary schools during arrivals and dismissals
-Making use of automated systems to effectively communicate information
-Adopting and in the process of implementing the recommendations from an independent safety audit conducted by VRI Technologies, a highly respected security consultant firm
-Purchasing additional safety equipment

2. There was another school shooting at Arapahoe High School in Centennial, CO. According to a time line provided by police, the event started at 12:33 p.m. on Friday and ended by 12:35 p.m.. The shooter walked into the school wearing a bandolier containing shotgun shells and carrying a pump-action shotgun, a machete and a backpack holding three Molotov cocktails. He fired one shot in the hallway, shot a student point-blank in the head, fired another round in the hallway, fired a fourth round in the library, ignited one of the Molotov cocktails causing a fire that burned three bookshelves and sending smoke pouring into the library, fired a fifth round and ran to the back of the library where he killed himself. Total elapsed time was 80 seconds.

The letter to the board reads as follows:

After years of ignoring the NYS SAVE Law, the Sandy Hook tragedy spurred action in the New Rochelle schools.

Security consultants were hired, training increased, drills were held, building-level and district-wide safety plans were developed.

With great fanfare PTA meetings were held, the board held hearings, the board adopted plans, and the district filed those plans with NYSED, NYSP and NRPD.

The school year began in September with a new emphasis on security. Students were required to wear their ID badges, doors were being checked regularly, visitors at the front door were being screened.

And then NRHS got a threat on 11/20.

I was on scene almost immediately that day. The evacuation was handled very well from what I could observe. Decisive action was taken. The building-level safety plan was followed. Students were dismissed. Night classes were cancelled. The school searched. The all clear was given and classes resumed the next day.

Then another threat was made on 12/2. Decisive action was taken. The building-level safety plan was followed. There was another orderly evacuation and search of the building by NRPD. Classes resumed that day.

These evacuations were a vast improvement over the seriously flawed evacuations which took place in January and June, one of which is still under investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice.

Then a third threat was made on 12/3. No action was taken. The building-level safety plan was not followed. There was no evacuation. There was no search of the building. Classes continued. Staff, students and parents were not even informed there had been a threat.

Later that day a meeting took place with NRPD and CSDNR officials. It is agreed that going forward new protocols will supersede the ones in the building-levels plans. The new protocol is for a building leader who gets a threat to make a determination if the threat is serious enough to warrant immediate action or whether the threat may not be serious and so set up a conference call with the District Central Office and the NRPD. A consultation will take place where the NRPD will make a recommendation. The City says it is ONLY a recommendation and that the final decision is up to the District. The District says they will abide by whatever the NRPD recommends. Like any good bureaucracies, all parties are satisfied as each party can now point the finger at the other if something goes wrong by diffusing decision-making while adding a non-trivial delay into the decision-making process.

The clock is ticking the entire time.

Now recall that the catalyst for all of this was the Sandy Hook tragedy where Adam Lanza killed 26 students and teachers in less than 10 minutes.

The district was motivated to develop and implement building-level safety plans to avoid another Sandy Hook but has now added layers of bureaucratic decision-making which would give the next "Adam Lanza" more time to act.

The logic of the district is seriously flawed and needs to be addressed.

Please follow me here on this point.

If the NRPD recommends no action and the CSDNR takes no action and no threat is carried out then all parties can defend their decision not to evacuate the school on the grounds that the “right” decision was made in not evacuating the school. This is precisely what occurred once the non-evacuation of 12/3 became known to the public (by me).

In fact, this “successful” non-decision has been put forward as PROOF of the benefit of the new protocol involving consultation with NRPD.

This is what is known as an argumentum ad ignorantiam.

The District, the NRPD and the City of New Rochelle assert the new protocol is sound because the decision not to evacuate upon receiving a threat was “right” because it was not proven wrong.

I have two videos for your consideration that will explain my concern with this deeply flawed thinking.

The first is about Nobel-Prize Winning Physicist Richard Feynman’s dissenting opinion filed with the Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident :

In the video I would direct your attention to the NBC News clip where the Committee Chairman sought to remove Feynman’s dissent and the reasons why — he knew Feynman was right but Feynman made NASA look bad.

In Feyman’s dissent, I would direct your attention to this passage:

If a reasonable launch schedule is to be maintained, ENGINEERING OFTEN CANNOT BE DONE FAST ENOUGH TO KEEP UP WITH THE EXPECTATIONS OF ORIGINALLY CONSERVATIVE CERTIFICATION CRITERIA DESIGNED TO GUARANTEE A VERY SAFE VEHICLE. In these situations, subtly, and often with APPARENTLY LOGICAL ARGUMENTS, the criteria are altered so that flights may still be certified in time. They therefore fly in a relatively unsafe condition, with a chance of failure of the order of a percent… (emphasis added)

Official management, on the other hand, claims to believe the probability of failure is a thousand times less. One reason for this may be an attempt to assure the government of NASA perfection and success in order to ensure the supply of funds. The other may be that they sincerely believed it to be true, demonstrating an almost incredible lack of communication between themselves and their working engineers.

In any event this has had very unfortunate consequences, the most serious of which is to encourage ordinary citizens to fly in such a dangerous machine, as if it had attained the safety of an ordinary airliner.

Feyman refers to Christa McAuliffe, ironically for this discussion, a New Hampshire school teacher. Her students watched on live TV as she was killed in the Challenger explosion. The world was shocked by the explosion of the Challenger precisely because NASA had conveyed that the shuttles were extremely safe. Feynman’s point is that while Astronauts are, in effect, test pilots who fully understand the risks they are taking, Christa McAuliffe was not aware of those risks.

Would her students have been watching live on TV had the school known there was a 1 in 100 chance she would die aboard Challenger?

NASA offered the public faulty logic to conclude that flying the shuttle was relatively safe when their own engineers knew there was a 1 in 100 chance the shuttle would suffer a catastrophic failure and that the rate went up even further in cold weather.

Feyman found that every launch by NASA was 1,000 times more risky than NASA acknowledged. Even after Challenger exploded they could not admit it. It was Feynman who helped the public understand, with his ice water demonstration seen in the video, that NASA had not been "frank, honest, and informative” with “the citizens from whom it asks support”.

NASA’s logic is the exact same put forward by the School District in this instance — that they had launched the Shuttle many times without a catastrophic failure so the decision to launch was “right” because it was not proven wrong.

This is why I have often used the analogy of a blind man walking through a mine field to describe the district's response to safety and security issues. The district has been lucky rather than good.

NASA’s logic appeared sound from the first shuttle launch right up until the morning of January 28, 1986 when it was not sound. Of course, at that point it was too late and all on aboard the Challenger were killed.

Like NASA, the district developed "originally conservative criteria” in their safety plans designed to guarantee very safe schools and now, "subtly, and often with apparently logical arguments, the criteria are altered” so that students and staff are not inconvenienced with an evacuation and the public (and press) are unaware of any potential danger. The result is the schools are now operated in “a relatively unsafe condition” which will only become apparent after a catastrophic event.

This is what happened post-Columbine soon after the SAVE Act was signed into law and is happening now as Sandy Hook recedes into memory. The district has already begun backsliding on safety.

The second video is an excerpt from the feature film Zero Dark Thirty about the effort to track, capture of kill Osama Bin Laden.

The video depicts an actual event — a suicide attack at Forward Operating Base Chapman,near the eastern Afghan city of Khost which killed seven American CIA officers and contractors, an officer of Jordan's intelligence service, and an Afghan working for the CIA. The bombing was one of the most deadly attacks ever against the CIA.

Told by a security officer that "procedures only work if we follow them every time", the CIA agent pushed back saying "this is different". The rest of the sequence in the video explains itself.

The school district developed building-level safety plans based on templates provided by the State of New York, with input from VRI, NRPD and other experts.

In the breach, after just three incidents at one school, the district has now chosen to abandon the procedures detailed in those plans and sought to do so without informing the public as to why and as to how. The change has been justified to the public on the grounds that the new consultative process was supposedly used once and no threat was carried out.

Having constructed this fallacy, the district is now like NASA prior to the Challenger Disaster — not evacuating in response to each threat is “right” up until the day on which it is not. At which point, it will be too late.

As the parent of one of those children at the school on 12/3, I would insist that the district do what it did on 11/20 and 12/2 — err on the side of caution by following the plan adopted by the board.

At the very least, if you are going to now change the building-level safety plans to add this new consultation protocol there should be what is a REQUIRED public hearing and a formal vote of the school board to amend the existing plans. As it stands now, the district is once agains out of compliance with SAVE in this regard because you have changed the building-level plans without public input and a roll call vote of board members.

Please address these concerns with the urgency they deserve.

Robert Cox

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