Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Security and Safety Community Norms, Expectations and Options

A public school’s highest mission is to provide a Free and Appropriate Public Education for all of its students. In Chappaqua, not only do we provide a FAPE to all of our students, but we seek to go so much farther than the minimal standards.  And we succeed.  We provide one of the top public school educations in the country. 

Having said that, we are trusted daily with our community’s most precious asset, our children.  Almost 4,000 of them on a daily basis.  It is irrelevant what education we provide if we cannot do our best to ensure the safety of our students and staff. 

To paraphrase a great poet, Robert Zimmerman, the times and expectations they are a changing.  Over the course of my 11 years on the board, our district’s efforts at safety have changed materially.  Following Columbine and then Newtown events that were once incomprehensible became events we had to contemplate from a planning and safety standpoint.

Now, with Parkland and to an extent the construction of a retail, commercial and residential complex across the street from the high school, we must once again contemplate safety at our schools.  Safety is such a strong emotional concept at and in a school district.  It means different things to different people.  Of course, who would not support the concept of safety?

But safety is much more complex than simply building “man traps” and attempting to create a single point of entry for a sprawling spread out high school campus.  It involves prevention, it involves planning, it involves social and emotional efforts, it involves different levels of security, it involves spending money, it can be so varied and can cost so much money, that it really should not be a binary proposition put to a ballot on an extremely hasty time schedule.  It should be first a community discussion about what it means to the consensus of the community, it should be a discussion about cost benefit analysis, it should be a discussion about expectations, risks, costs, and obligations.

The discussion should also recognize the other changes that result from these proposed construction plans.  It is more than the cost in dollars and cents.  There is a cost in culture.  There is a cost to the students and staff in terms of mental approach to being in a locked down school all day.  The changes at the high school effectively attack the open campus, college like atmosphere the school was designed for and for which this board and this district has always taken pride.  It is one of the selling points of the district, the way we give our students a lot of responsibility for themselves and prepare them for college and the so called real world.

The discussion we are having tonight is a small fraction of what we as a district should be embarking upon.  It appears as if we are about to put to a vote whether to put a plan to accomplish ONE thing, a single point of entry to all of our schools with a “man trap” for the cost of approximately $8 million.
I think before we rush this bond proposal onto a ballot we need to do so much more work with the community.  More work than a homemade survey, more work than one or two meetings and more work than hearing from one consultant/security “expert”.  We need to have a plan for security and safety for the next 5 or 10 years.  To rush a proposal onto the ballot in order to get construction done in the summer of 2019 is short sighted. 

One, we do not know if the SED will even approve of the plans in time to bid out and go to contract on the work in time for summer of 2019.  More importantly, we do not know what the community wants.  And, we have not had time to explore all of our financing options.

We should not and cannot keep going back to the community for another bond or with another plan year after year.  Putting up this bond now, presumes that this is the step and the only step we need to do to ensure safety.  It presumes that this is our only option for accomplishing this one goal.  It assumes that we as a district and a board know what is best.  Who is putting their thumbprint on this as the correct, best and right plan?  Is it the consultant? Is it the architect? Is it the administration? The board?  Or, are we trying to throw it back on the community by saying, they voted for (or against) it so they made the decision?  

As it turns out, legally, it is a board decision.  We can get input from experts, consultants, the community, law enforcement, clergy, etc. but we make the final decision.  We have final say in what measures we put in place.  We are responsible for school security.  I, for one, am not comfortable doing this on a rushed ad hoc basis.  I think it is incumbent upon us to do research on community expectations, on available measures we can take, on the costs of those measures, on the time line for deliverables, and on what other non-physical or non-structural measures we can take.  We need to have a clear 5-10 year plan.

I propose an alternative.  I think we should set a different time line.  A time line that fully incorporates community input.  A time line that fully incorporates our staff input.  A time line that incorporates more than one security consultant.  A time line that gives us adequate time to listen, to learn and then to propose a course of action. 

In the short-run even before a best case construction schedule of summer of 2019, we should continue with the steps we have already taken.  Keep the three additional security guards at the high school.  Keep all the additional cameras.  Start aggressively implementing some of the social and emotional training and intervention.  Start educating our students on what to do in a crisis.  Start educating our staff.  Add internal changes such as changing the locking mechanisms on all of our classroom doors.

I propose we aim for a late October or early November date for putting a bond on a ballot if one is appropriate and necessary.  Before that date we need to have a community discussion on safety and security.  We should hold public forums with professional moderators and include multiple experts on security, include experts on mental health and other measures that are not physical, include law enforcement, include architects and engineers, and include the administration and board.  I am willing to personally find a broad cross section of experts/consultants to participate in the public forums.

Let’s discuss what the community thinks is appropriate and necessary after hearing from the various panelists and after hearing about costs and alternatives.  If we have two in May and two in June, we can then survey the community for what the standards should be and what they think of the various ideas brought forth.  We can spend the summer researching and planning and coming up with several alternative plans and then in September have another forum to discuss the two or three alternatives, to discuss the long-term goals and plans and to discuss the costs.  All this would then culminate in a final proposal, most likely requiring a bond and voter approval that we as a district and as a community can get behind and support. 

We need community input.  We need to understand what the community wants.  We need to understand what the community is willing to spend.  We need to be able to go to the community not with just one option and one plan to accomplish a singular goal, but we need to have a long-term strategic safety and security plan.