A commission convened by Westchester District Attorney Anthony Scarpino is well on its way to developing school security protocols that will be shared later this year with public and private schools, law enforcement, and mental health agencies across the county.
The protocols will include best practices in key areas, like identifying and supporting troubled students, developing comfortable school climates, and nurturing all-important relationships among educators, parents, law enforcement and mental health professionals.
The goal is to prevent school shootings and other spates of violence instead of reacting to them.
“How do we stop these things from happening?” said Brandon Cruz, supervisor of school safety for Southern Westchester BOCES. “That’s the million-dollar question.”
The Westchester County School Safety Commission, made up of 33 educators, law enforcement officials and others, was convened in September. The group met Wednesday in White Plains to share its findings to this point. Scarpino’s office hopes to share a final report and recommendations with the community by September.
Officials said that schools and law enforcement have made great strides in learning to work together and recognizing what needs to be done to prevent school violence. But they said there is great inconsistency in terms of practice, not only among schools but even when it comes to how a single school deals with different students.
Commission members hope to see communities develop standard, consistent processes to assess threats, pass on concerns about students, determine interventions with students of concern, and more.
“Let’s start earlier in the process; let’s look at these behaviors,” said Michael Orth, Westchester County’s commissioner of community mental health.
Scarpino said that educators and law enforcement, in trying to prevent school violence, are being asked to take on challenges that their professions would not have imagined only decades ago.
“It is a tremendous responsibility and we are trying to be up to the task,” he said.
As is often the case in Westchester, the different resources available from community to community will be an issue. Christine Morrone, a kindergarten teacher in Yonkers, told the group that the underfunded Yonkers school system can’t be expected to have the necessary staff to implement all best practices.
“We don’t have the mental health professions that we need, in our elementary schools especially,” she said.
One recommendation being considered is that all schools should hold annual “active shooter” drills. But Katelyn Cecere, a White Plains High School student serving on the commission, asked about the effects of such realistic drills on elementary school students. “At that age, you’re not able to process that,” she said.
Other key points made by commission members included:
- Private schools in Westchester are often not included in communications between law enforcement and public schools. Matt Tormey, chief criminal investigator for the DA’s office, said the upcoming recommendations will be aimed at all schools in the county, including private schools and preschools.
- Educators, law enforcement and others must stay in contact with students in crisis after their crises appear to be resolved.
- School staff, parents and even students must learn to be on the lookout for concerning behaviors exhibited by students, and must be made to feel comfortable sharing their concerns.
- Schools should make efforts to identify students who lack connections — to sports, to clubs, to academics, to other students — as they may be at risk.
- Putnam/Northern Westchester BOCES has created a Regional Crisis Stabilization Task Force to coordinate resources for students and families in crisis. Southern Westchester BOCES plans to do the same.