Federal Commission Addresses School Safety

Signs reminding students to not open the doors for visitors without a pass are posted on exit doors at Jamestown High School. P-J photo by Jordan W. Patterson

The Federal Commission on School Safety, created to analyze procedures and policies across the country released a 177-page report in December. While addressing 93 best practices and policy recommendations regarding safety, Jamestown Public Schools Superintendent Bret Apthorpe said the report failed to mention new information and called it “disappointing.”

“This report spoke to the obvious, that we have a mental health crisis in our schools and how we should treat that,” Apthorpe told The Post-Journal.

The Federal Commission on School Safety was established by President Donald Trump following the school shooting in Parkland, Fla. that resulted in the death of 17 people. The commission visited education programs across the country, met with experts and concerned citizens and conducted research before submitting its report.

The official release described the report as a “resource guide” for school districts, law enforcement and health agencies, elected officials and families regarding school safety.

“Each of us has an important role to play in keeping our students safe while at school,” said Chair of the Federal Commission on School Safety and U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos in an official statement in December. “Through the Commission’s work, it has become even clearer there is no single policy that will make our schools safer. What will work for schools in Montana will be different than what will work for schools in Manhattan. With that in mind, this report provides a wide-ranging menu of best practices and resources that all state, community, and school leaders should consider while developing school safety plans and procedures that will work for their students and teachers.”

Last year, the Bemus Point Central School District began discussions with the community of employing a School Resource Officer (SRO) following the Parkland tragedy in February.

At the beginning of the 2018-19 school year, Bemus Point joined other local school districts that employ an SRO. Forestville, Silver Creek, and Erie-2 BOCES Hewes and Loguidice centers along with their facility in Cassadaga have an SRO present provided by the Chautauqua County Sheriff’s Office.

Falconer and Jamestown school districts also employ SROs through the Ellicott Police Department and the Jamestown Police Department, respectively.

The report was broken into three sections of Prevent, Protect and Mitigate and Respond and Recover.

The Prevent category, addressed cyberbullying, mental health, reporting systems, violent entertainment and the President Barrack Obama Administration’s guidance on school discipline.

Apthorpe said school districts around the country would have benefited more if the report addressed the causes of a mental illness crisis and school shooters.

“Why do we have this culture,” Apthorpe said. “All they really provided is how to address the symptoms, but not the causes.”

The Protect and Mitigate category addressed training school personnel, crisis training for law enforcement and school building security.

Many school districts in Chautauqua County have implemented vestibules or double-door entrances to enhance control and surveillance of visitors. Falconer and Southwestern school districts are the latest to plan upgrades to the entrances and exits of their facilities.

The third section of the report, Respond and Recover, addressed active shooter preparedness and mitigation. But Apthorpe said while the report discusses the known issues, it does little to spur any action.

“The commission should have called upon policy makers to get serious about answering this question (of mental illness and school safety,” Apthorpe said.

Regardless of federal reports, superintendents across the county agreed that school safety is always thought about. Maureen Donahue, superintendent of the Southwestern Central School District, said educators and school administrators are constantly reviewing school procedures regarding, mental health, school safety and facility upgrades. Michael Mansfield, superintendent of the Bemus Point Central School District, has frequently been vocal about reviewing school safety procedures in the past. That review was key in eventually hiring an SRO in the district.

“There isn’t a day that goes by that we’re not all concerned about the safety of kids,” Donahue said.

A district approved capital project totalling an estimated $13 million is currently being reviewed by the state Education Department that is planned to address security and surveillance around the district. The district also looks at ways to improve the the staff’s ability to handle various situations regarding mental health awareness and overall school safety.

“We’re constantly looking at having our staff trained (in school safety and mental health practices). We’re constantly assessing where we’re at,” Donahue said of the district.