Newtown massacre has Hudson Valley schools scrambling for more cops
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When National Rifle Association president Wayne LaPierre broke his silence after the Newtown, Conn., shootings to call for an armed police officer in every school, he was roundly condemned and mocked.
Now it looks like school leaders are taking his advice.
Schools across the Hudson Valley are making midyear budget adjustments and trimming spending elsewhere to scrounge up the money for armed guards, whether they're official school resource officers or off-duty cops moonlighting as student protectors.
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It's part of a national trend to put police back in schools after 26 people, including 20 children, were killed by gunman Adam Lanza at Sandy Hook Elementary School on Dec. 14.
With a budget to balance and overtime in their sights, Orange County lawmakers pulled a pair of school resource officers from Orange-Ulster BOCES in 2011.
This week, the same two officers returned to the program's Goshen campus, a move prompted by calls for increased school security in the wake of Newtown. The county's school resource officers can cost up to $115,000 a year with salary and benefits, a cost officials said they will absorb because of the importance of school security.
"This was planned before Newtown, but Newtown underscored the value of SRO programs," said Terry Olivo, chief operating officer at Orange-Ulster BOCES.
Rye Brook's Blind Brook School District does not have school resource officers, but since the Sandy Hook shootings the school district has hired off-duty officers for posts at Blind Brook Middle and High School, and the Bruno M. Ponterio Ridge Street elementary school.
"It was a request from the school, and the school is footing the bill," Rye Brook Police Chief Gregory Austin said.
The officers, all from Rye Brook, are uniformed and are there to "provide a presence," Austin said. Along with creating those posts, district leaders also consulted with police on new security measures.
In neighboring Port Chester, the police department has devoted extra resources to schools, with units rotating between schools throughout the day and additional, random patrols on school grounds, police Capt. John Telesca said.
The police have also worked with school administrators on dramatically increasing the number of drills for things like fires and school lockdowns, "to such an extent as it becomes almost muscle memory," Telesca said.
Across New York and nationally, hundreds of local media reports detail similar measures, from police officers in Monroe, Conn., identifying and screening parents and guardians who drop their kids off at school, to leaders in Gainesville, Fla., scrounging to place resource officers in 24 schools. In some states, like Indiana, lawmakers introduced a bill that would use state money to fund mandatory school resource officers.
One local resident said spending on armed school guards shows misplaced priorities.
"There are so many needs in the schools in general, for paying teachers better, keeping teachers, fixing the infrastructure," said Jill Caslin, 72, of Mamaroneck, a former Ohio third-grade teacher whose husband taught middle school for 37 years in Westchester County. "It's hard to imagine where they'd cut back more in order to pay for security."
Caslin said she has seven young grandchildren, several of whom attend school in Connecticut not far from Newtown.
Nonetheless, "I think you cannot really protect against an insane person like at Sandy Hook. I think too many armed guards is overkill," she said. "I still think too many armed guards makes a police state out of the community. It's just too much."
GUIDE FOR SCHOOLS
A Department of Justice booklet, "Guide for Preventing and Responding to School Violence," was updated on Dec. 14, the same day Lanza gunned down teachers and students at Sandy Hook. The document provides detailed recommendations for schools, ranging from suggestions on threat assessment to prevention, planning and the roles of teachers and administrators in a crisis.
The guide notes there's no one-size-fits-all set of security protocols appropriate for every school, and stresses the importance of tailoring plans to each school.
It also warns that even the best-prepared, most secure schools can be breached.
"All involved in working to prevent or respond to school violence should be aware that no strategies in this or any other publication provide any guarantees against violence," the guide warns. "Recognition of the rarity of school shootings and the complexity and unpredictability of human behavior should temper community initiatives as well as expectations."
One Westchester mom offered similar sentiments.
Meredith Savizky, 33, of Larchmont, a mother of two young sons, is a former teacher at Mount Vernon High School.
"They had security systems in place. They had evacuation drills in place," she said. "Beyond that no school can really be prepared if people start coming in with automatic weapons."
In Newtown, "I think they basically did what they could do," Savizky said. "They were prepared for a drill, they saved a lot of kids. Nobody really talks about that, right? How many kids didn't get killed because the teachers were sort of prepared."
With Xavier Mascareñas, Ron Bittner and The Associated Press