In the wake of the tragic high school shooting at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Parkland, Florida that left 17 dead and 14 wounded, schools across the country are reacting. The Lansing schools are no different. School officials are working on comprehensive plans to create a community in which students, teachers, staff, and families watch out for each other. A symbolic march is planned for March 14th, but Lansing School Superintendent Chris Pettograsso says that concrete measures are also being taken.
"I want to start by sending out heartfelt condolences to the Florida school community," she told the Board Of Education Monday. "Any acts of violence anywhere senseless acts shouldn't happen in schools. It should be a safe haven even more-so. Rest assured that your school community here is talking a great deal about it: your administrative team, your Board Of Education... we have regular meetings with our state troopers and have a state trooper assigned to us. We work closely, and are fortunate to have family members who are in the FBI that we have meetings with as well. And, of course, Deputy Thompson (a school board member)."
Pettograsso said she is proud of high school students who approached school officials about holding a student walkout on march 14th to coincide with a national walkout to protest gun violence and call on state and federal lawmakers to enact legislation to end the kind of violence that occurred in Florida. The students are currently working with High School Principal Colleen Ledley to work out details of the Lansing protest. She was careful to differentiate between the right to own guns and actual school violence using them.
"We're allowing the students to do the walkout with our support, as the faculty and staff as allies," she said. "Our mission about it is to focus to say that we will not stand for gun violence. We're really not making any stance about gun rights and gun laws right now. We're just focused on being against gun violence and violence in schools in general."
Pettograsso said the District has been reactive to incidents up to this point, but she wants to become proactive in identifying possible incidents and heading them off.
"What I was referring to about being more preventative than corrective is making sure that we have the right amount of mental health support staff and training for our teachers to create a safe and welcoming school culture," she said. "Simple things: making sure that everybody says 'hello' to each other in the morning; making sure that we are responding by creating opportunities for students that engage them; and that we are available for students to come to us and students don't see us as an outsider or somebody not to go to. So it's really about the school climate and culture. And we're putting everything in place to make sure it's positive."
Pettograsso says the district has been fortunate to have students who are comfortable taking concerns to their principals or counseling staff. She says that has helped district officials intervene in situations where personal safety was in question, suicide, and depression. She credits the teaching and mental health staffs for creating a culture in which students care about their peers and feel comfortable about seeking help. But Pettograsso says there is still room for improvement.
"Oftentimes you may hear a student make a joke about doing something violent, and they'll say 'Oh, he's just kidding'," she says. "And information never gets to us."
District officials are also gradually building back the school counseling and mental health staff. Pettograsso explained to school board members that she is not asking for new positions at this stage, but rather to replace positions that were cut during the financial stressful period during which the Cayuga Power Plant lost over $100 million of taxable value. With increasing school population and outside pressures, not the least of which are shooting incidents in other districts, she said the district should gradually build back to these positions and possibly add more.
"Because the current positions are part time it leaves very little time for collaboration with the team, which, obviously, is essential for them to be more preventative when we're really reacting right now," she said. "We're intervening after the fact, and we're hoping top be more preventative in the future. The more stressors that come on from the outside, and more enrollment, and more poverty, or more family domestic disputes, the harder it is on the individual. We're feeling a need to increase the number of mental health providers that we have so we can continue to provide the same services."
High School Counselor Megan Conaway gave a presentation Monday in which she also stressed that more time is needed for counselors and psychologists to talk to each other and connect with other elements in the school community in order to be more effective.
"What we're seeing a lot of across the board and across the buildings, is people looking for more systematic ways to address social and emotional learning in general, the concerns and stressor that students are experiencing," added Director of Curriculum, Instruction, Assessment and Professional Development Lauren Faessler. "This mental health first aid felt like it was really addressing people in crisis. We're doing an increasing amount, because this is becoming a concern across the board."
In addition to staffing and strategic planning, the last several budgets have included security upgrades that have included cameras in all three schools, plus moving school offices and check-in points to the front doors of each school so that visitors can be more reliably required to sign in and be monitored. Pettograsso says the district is looking at new ways to provide school safety as they become available.
"I do think we need to make sure that we are using whatever advances in technology that are available to us, safety measures that are available to us, cameras and things like that... not to ever think that's going to keep us from having any type of incident, but it's going to give us time to react and respond," she said. "Along those lines, we need just as much training and practice with our faculty and staff. It's our reality now that this is something we have to be prepared for, and, hopefully, never have to use any of these strategies that we're learning."
The Town of Lansing is taking similar precautions. With court activities increasing and bringing in more people, some resentful that they or family members have been summoned to the Town court, officials are concerned about the safety of employees both who work in the court system and others who work in other town offices.
"We have allocated money in the budget this year to install more protective safety measures," says Lansing Supervisor Ed LaVigne. "We're working on that right now. Our Clerk and the workers in the Town Clerk's office will have a safety barrier between the public and themselves. We are extremely concerned about that because we have court here. Many people come through, and they are not being screened. Our constable does an excellent job, but, God forbid, if something happened people would be at risk. We hope to have that implemented this year."