Thursday, April 5, 2018

Simulation drives home sad reality

The loud BANG of gunfire resonated through the hallways of a mostly deserted Watervliet Jr./Sr. High School over spring break. Although I knew it was a drill, the sound was chilling just the same.

The Watervliet Police Department took advantage of a student- and staff-free building to practice active-shooter training earlier this week. It was slightly unnerving, but completely understandable, to be greeted at the main door by law enforcement officers asking to search our bags as part of a routine check and wanding us before we entered the building the morning of the training. 

Chief Spain and his officers offered several of us the opportunity to observe a few different active shooter scenarios that they practiced as part of their training. While we watched the scenarios unfold from a secure area, the blast of gunfire, the ping of empty shell cases hitting the floor, and the smell of gunpowder filled the hallway. Hearing the call over the radio of “shots fired at Watervliet High School” turned my blood cold and made my mind race. My hope is that the WPD will never need to put this particular training to the test at our schools, or anywhere in our community for that matter. Knowing, however, that our law enforcement officials and first responders are taking actions to prepare as best they can for unthinkable situations does offer a level of reassurance. 

Proactive as opposed to reactive

After the observation, Chief Spain joined us in the conference room to discuss the training and answers our questions. One thing on which we all agree if our goal is to prevent these types of senseless, horrific and violent acts, is that we must be proactive rather than reactive.

While we practice a variety of drills with our students and staff throughout the year to assess and reassess our emergency procedures and safety protocols, it is equally as important to build and encourage a culture of acceptance and respect in our schools. Part of how we can achieve this is through our Character Education programs: No Place for Hate at the grades 7-12 level, and Positive Behavioral Interventions and Support (PBIS) at the elementary school. Both of these programs focus on creating a more positive, welcoming climate in our schools.

The No Place for Hate initiative creates a safer learning environment for all by increasing tolerance and understanding and reducing bullying, name-calling and expressions of prejudice in schools. Our students participate in No Place for Hate activities throughout the year, such as Mix-It-Up Lunch and the annual STOP (Students Together Opposing Prejudice) conference at Siena College.

The PBIS approach helps to create and maintain a positive school climate through teaching, modeling and recognizing positive, appropriate behavior in our elementary school. PBIS focuses on three core values: be respectful, be responsible and be safe. Students are expected to practice these values in the classroom, the cafeteria, on the playground and other school settings.

In addition to character education, our focus on mental health training and awareness will continue for our staff. We also are partnering with the Whitney Young Health Center to bring substance abuse and mental health counseling on-site in our schools next year.

I regularly remind teachers and staff to never underestimate the importance of your presence both inside and outside of your classrooms and work areas. Having adults they can trust and rely on helps students build stronger connections to their schools. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the sense of belonging or being connected to school is particularly important for young people who are at increased risk for feeling alienated or isolated.

In my previous blog post about school safety, I emphasized that if you see something, say something. As clich├ęd as it may sound, both Chief Spain and I agree that this is crucial for maintaining safe and secure schools and communities. 

I appreciate the cooperative relationship that we continue to build with the Watervliet Police. Our collaborative efforts will only make our buildings safer for students and staff.

An update on school budget development 

On another note, the New York State Legislature recently passed its state budget, which contains some additional state aid for schools beyond what the governor had proposed in his Executive Budget in January. With that news, school business manager Mr. Heid and I currently are working with the rest of my administrative team to put the finishing touches on our school budget proposal for next year. The Board of Education will review, and then adopt, the proposed 2018-19 school budget during its meeting on Thursday, April 19. Following that, Watervliet residents (18 and older) will have an opportunity to vote on the proposed school budget on Tuesday, May 15 from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. 

In the meantime, I invite you to join us and learn more about the budget process during the WES PTA meeting on Tuesday, April 10 at 6:30 p.m. in the school cafeteria, and at our annual Budget Breakfast workshop on Saturday, April 14 at 9:00 a.m. in the administrative conference room at WJSHS. Also, please attend our public budget hearing on Tuesday, May 8 at 6:00 p.m., one week before the school budget vote and Board of Education election.