February 2013
January 31, 2013

Making our schools safe: NYSUT advocates for tougher compliance

Author: Liza Frenette
Source: NYSUT United

With school safety under intense scrutiny since the December 2012 school massacre in Newtown, Conn., NYSUT is advocating to broaden the Workplace Violence Prevention Act to include K-12 schools.

"We need to ensure that safety programs are in place and up to date," said NYSUT Vice President Kathleen Donahue.

Under WVPA, complaints about inadequate safety programs can be made to the state Public Employee Safety and Health bureau, prompting a PESH inspection and possibly citations for infractions. The move would provide added protection for schools, their students and employees, Donahue said.

"We want our members covered under the act," she said.

New York's Safe Schools Against Violence in Education law, or SAVE, requires districts to have school safety plans and carry out eight drills before December and 12 annually, said NYSUT's health and safety specialist Wendy Hord, however, there are no penalities for failing to do so.

Educators, administrators and members of school safety teams, meanwhile, are encouraged to review their safety plans and make sure drills are taking place.

"Many more children could have been killed if [Sandy Hook] hadn't had a communications process in place or conducted practice drills," said Hord. The drills also include coordination with law enforcement agencies and emergency responders.

Each school building needs to have an emergency response team and an incident command system. The New York State Center for School Safety (NYSCSS) recommends teams include the school nurse and a school janitor, because they often know the building best.

School-Related Professionals are the first line of defense for school safety at Rush-Henrietta, says Karen Arthmann, president of the Rush-Henrietta Employees Association, who helps maintain non-emergency security in the halls, cafeteria and at sporting events.

"We have a closed campus. There are greeters at the door," said Arthmann, a member of the district's health and safety committee. "Community members come in and out of the facilities every day. We are responsible for other people's children. There is nothing more important."

Transportation should be a vital component of any district's plan, says Owego-Apalachin school bus driver Donna Signs. "The key is to practice, practice, practice and educate," she said.

The district's disaster plan includes drivers and attendants practicing how to transport medically fragile students and others with special needs in emergency conditions.

Since the Newtown shootings, NYSCSS Director Beth Mastro said her agency has noticed an uptick in requests for assistance. The state agency provides support to schools, families, communities and government organizations to improve school safety, under provisions in the Dignity for All Students Act and SAVE, two laws NYSUT played a key role in getting passed.

"One of the things we've seen after the Connecticut shooting is districts going and looking back at their plans," Mastro said. "They're making sure people understand their roles, that plans are in place, and that different drills are being done."

New York state lawmakers acted in January to pass legislation creating School Safety Improvement Teams; under the law, certain security expenses for schools would come under building aid.

The governor will establish the safety teams, which may include emergency services, state police and criminal justice personnel. They will assess school safety plans submitted on a voluntary basis by schools in districts with fewer than 125,000 people, and by BOCES and county vocational education and extension boards. Schools that receive approval for projects will receive additional building aid.

Staff writer Leslie Duncan Fottrell contributed to this story.