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Teachers say more needs to be done to stop escalating acts of violence in schools

Rick Bowmer

As a new school year begins, the state’s largest teachers unions and other education experts are calling for better responses to threats of violence.

Educators are still reeling from the mass school shooting in Texas last spring, as well as the Buffalo incident that killed 10 people.

The union leaders said schools need to be better prepared for the grim reality that classrooms are increasingly a target for mass shootings and a setting for other forms of violence.

The gunman in Uvalde, Texas, is accused of killing 21 people — 19 elementary schoolchildren and two teachers — before police officers were able to kill him.

The man accused in the mass shooting at the Tops supermarket in Buffalo in May allegedly threatened to commit a murder-suicide at his high school near Binghamton one year earlier.

New York State United Teachers President Andy Pallotta said students and teachers also face an increasing number of more minor — but violent — incidents. He named a few that occurred during the past school year, including May 5, when several schools in the Hudson Valley received bomb threats and other threats of violence and a Syracuse student who brought a gun to school, saying he needed it for protection.

“The headlines from this past school year tell a story that is full of problems and disruption,” Pallotta said.

New York City’s United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew said hardening school security has not been a solution.

"Instead of talking about arming teachers and locking down schools as prisons, we have to start with the issue of giving the school community what it needs to actually start dealing with the issues that our children are facing,” said Mulgrew.

The unions have issued a report that calls for better coordination among school administrators, teachers and even students, to both react to potential threats and to stop them before they happen.

The report recommends standard school safety procedures that use methods proven to be effective in identifying potentially dangerous situations before they escalate.

Jackie Schildkraut, a professor at SUNY Oswego and a national expert on mass shootings, worked on the task force that wrote the report. She also worked with the Syracuse City School District to implement safety programs, beginning shortly after the 2018 Parkland, Florida shooting that killed 14 students and three staff members.

Schildkraut said every school in the district had a different policy for dealing with a potentially dangerous incident. That created confusion, she said. Now all the schools follow the same procedure, using tactics proven to be successful.

She adds another goal is to make lockdown drills less scary for students.

“There are things that we know (how to do) that do not raise the trauma of a drill,” Schildkraut said. “The same way that we don’t set schools on fire to practice a fire drill, we don’t have to simulate active shooter situations to practice a lockdown.”.

The unions said schools need to hire more staff with expertise in dealing with violence and students with mental health issues, including more nurses and school psychologists and social workers. Luckily, there is money in this year’s state budget to do that.

Task force member Dwayne Cerbone is the president of the Pittsford District Teachers Association near Rochester, and the head of the Monroe County Federation of Teachers. He said more work needs to be done to prevent violent situations from escalating in the first place.

Cerbone said in many cases students know more about impending trouble than do teachers.

“Most of us as high school teachers, middle school teachers, we have a student for forty minutes a day,” Cerbone said. “So I may hear something second period that seems a little concerning to me, somebody else hears something a little later in the day. How do we open up that communication?”

But he said they might not want to “tell” on their friends or classmates. The task force recommends setting up anonymous tip lines.

Cerbone said it’s also important to employ what’s known as “restorative practices” after a student commits a violent or inappropriate act. It involves bringing in counselors, engaging with the family and helping other students process what happened.

Finally, the task force recommends that the wide availability and large number of guns be reduced. They said there should be universal background checks for gun purchases and a federal ban on high-capacity magazines.

They also said the federal government should adopt laws similar to New York’s to restrict those under 21 from buying guns and to adopt national red flag laws. The Red Flag laws allow a judge to order the seizure of weapons from a person deemed a threat to themselves or others.

Karen has covered state government and politics for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 New York and Connecticut stations, since 1990. She is also a regular contributor to the statewide public television program about New York State government, New York Now. She appears on the reporter’s roundtable segment, and interviews newsmakers.