School, law enforcement officials in Herkimer BOCES region reactivate task force

School superintendents, law enforcement officials and others in the Herkimer-Fulton-Hamilton-Otsego BOCES region participate in a school safety meeting on Friday in the Herkimer County Chamber of Commerce conference room. The Herkimer BOCES Health and Safety Service organized the meeting. (Photo submitted)

HERKIMER — A meeting of school superintendents and law enforcement agencies in the Herkimer-Fulton-Hamilton-Otsego BOCES region resulted in a plan to reactivate a Safety in Our Schools Task Force, have more impromptu law enforcement visits to schools in the area and schedule lockdown drills and debriefings involving law enforcement.

There also were discussions about related topics such as school resource officers, mental health services and the sharing of information among schools and agencies.

“It’s certainly a time when this is a focus across the nation,” Herkimer BOCES District Superintendent Sandra Sherwood said. “It’s also an opportunity to share best practices, have our law enforcement agencies tell us what they think are best practices and establish a regional approach to safety.”

Sherwood proposed the school safety meeting during a discussion with Herkimer County Sheriff Christopher Farber during the recent Herkimer County Chamber of Commerce Legislative Breakfast in February. Herkimer BOCES Health and Safety Service Coordinator Adam Hutchinson then organized the meeting – inviting superintendents from all Herkimer BOCES component school districts, the Herkimer County Mental Health director and all law enforcement agencies located in the Herkimer BOCES region.

The meeting took place on Friday in the Herkimer County Chamber of Commerce conference room, which is located in the same building as the Herkimer BOCES administrative offices at 420 E. German St. in Herkimer.

There were 23 people in attendance for the meeting including Sherwood, Hutchinson, component school superintendents, state Assemblyman Brian Miller, Miller’s legislative aide Karri Tibbitts, Herkimer County Mental Health Director of Community Services Kristen Snyder-Branner and representatives from state police, the Herkimer County Sheriff’s Office and the Dolgeville, Frankfort, Herkimer, Ilion, Little Falls and Mohawk police departments.

Hutchinson said it was beneficial to get everyone together to discuss everything that has been happening in the wake of the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, and to talk about resources available among schools and law enforcement agencies.

Following the school shooting in Parkland, Fla., local incidents or threats have elevated concerns as well, so this meeting was a chance to come together and talk about options, Sherwood said, noting that she felt it was also important to address the mental health aspect of it by inviting Snyder-Branner.

During the meeting, Sherwood encouraged school districts to involve law enforcement agencies with lockdown drills. She also asked law enforcement officials to stop by school buildings unannounced to check doors and do walkthroughs, and law enforcement officials were receptive to the request.

“I think we could use your input on ways to improve,” Sherwood said. “We’ve got to know what our vulnerability is.”

School districts with school resource officers — including Dolgeville, Frankfort-Schuyler, Little Falls and West Canada Valley — discussed how they set that up and how it has been working for them. West Canada Valley has an annual agreement with the Herkimer County Sheriff’s Office, and the other three schools have arrangements with their local police departments.

West Canada Valley Superintendent D.J. Shepardson said having a school resource officer helps ease concerns. The presence of a Sheriff’s Office vehicle outside the school and officer inside the school adds a sense of security, he said.

A school resource officer also becomes part of the school community and could help prevent incidents from occurring, Shepardson said.

“It’s not just a security guard,” he said.

Little Falls Police Chief Michael Masi echoed that sentiment – saying that school resource officers go through active shooter training and other specialized training.

“It teaches them more than just security,” Masi said. “It teaches them mentorship and educational components as well.”

The state Assembly and Senate have different ideas they are working on related to school safety, and there has been a request to the governor to create a task force, Miller said.

Miller supports the idea of state funding for school resource officers, he said.

“Cameras and magnetometers are great, but we’re going to need a security officer there,” he said. “Society has evolved into that now, and we’re well aware of it.”

Some school superintendents expressed some concerns with school resource officers and additional security measures detracting from the accessibility of schools or resulting in unfunded state mandates, but they were open to the possibility of resources to enhance safety services they may already be offering.

Miller said he agreed that the state would need to be fully committed to the plan.

“I think this needs to be state funded,” he said. “We can’t pass this down.”

Farber said he joined other sheriffs from across the state on Tuesday, March 6, in Albany, and there was a push to state legislators for funding for school resource officers because cameras and metal detectors wouldn’t be enough in a school shooting situation.

“You can have that magnetometer there, but you have to have the person there to stop them,” Farber said.

Frankfort-Schuyler Superintendent Robert Reina said he thinks the state should provide financial resources to schools and law enforcement agencies without tying their hands with new regulations.

“Give them the money and get out of the way and watch how fast it will get done and how well it will get done,” Reina said.

There also were discussions about mental health and preventative measures schools can take before a school resource officer or anyone else would have to respond to an incident.

“As soon as guns start going off in my school, we failed,” Herkimer Superintendent Robert Miller said. “We have to prevent that.”

Some attendees expressed a desire for more interagency communication to share more information following a threat.

With so many issues on everyone’s mind, it was nice to have everyone together to share ideas, Farber said. He also said he supports the plan of reactivating the Safety in Our Schools Task Force, which was last in place during the 1980s, in order to keep working on school safety issues as a region.

“Let’s face it: If something ever happened, we would probably all be working together, so we should make sure we’re on the same page,” he said.

By Paul Wager

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