Former New York City Police Commissioner William Bratton, along with a litany of experts, stressed that collaboration between local stakeholders is important in preventing another Newtown-style school tragedy.
Giving the keynote address at a schools safety forum at SUNY Purchase on Wednesday, Bratton argued that strategy should be similar to a community policing technique that was employed in the 1990s and helped to bring down urban crime.
“School administrators cannot solve the problem of school safety in their silo," he said. "Police cannot solve it in their silo. Fire and emergency response people cannot solve it in theirs and the parents of the children that we are all obligated to protect cannot do it on their own.”
Bratton also argued that preventative action was paramount, and that the emphasis on it from a policing standpoint, as opposed to reactive work in the high-crime period of the 1980s, is particularly effective.
The former law enforcement chief also said that with prevention, there's a need for understanding people's behavior, looking for indicators for whether they can pose threats, and then taking action. He also felt that prioritization should be based on a perpetrator's motivations.
Bratton was just one of several people at the event, however, who placed an emphasis on collaboration.
The forum is part of Westchester County's "Safer Communities" initiative, which was announced last week by County Executive Rob Astorino. It involves the often-repeated word of collaboration, but among the county and local officials, such as police, schools and clergy. The initiative also has a preventative nature.
The Wednesday event included talks from various professionals, along with a panel discussion from experts in the region. Attendees were reported to include law enforcement - they came from various police departments - and school district officials. Turnout, meanwhile, was reported to be in the range of about 400.
Astorino, who spoke at the forum, recounted that when he heard about the recent tragedy, “my first thought was as a father," both in thinking of his kids and those in Newtown. He noted talking with his kids about what they would have done in such a situation, while adding that what someone emotionally wants to do as a parent in response, such as heading to the school, may not be a good idea.
On collaboration, Astorino called it “obviously so important.” However, he argued that, at the county level, the response is not something that can be centered around increasing taxes or getting more money. Rather, it involves taking policy answers that are already known - he referred to remedies that might be figuratively gathering dust.
Collaboration is also something that should transcend school and municipal lines, Astorino argued, which school districts working together.
"These are boundaries on a map," he said in dismissing the notion that practices should stop at the line's edge.
Matthew A. Miraglia, a school safety expert who spoke, cited Scarsdale as a collaborative model, noting that every school principal meets with police and fire officials.
“It's emergency management of at its best," he said.
School shootings have also included cases of missed opportunities, where others saw signs of problems with the future perpetrators, according to Charles H. Boklan, a retired U.S. Secret Service official. He cited the shooter behind the 2007 mass shooting at Virginia Tech, for example, where the perpetrator was known to have a mental health history but there was no effective response. The man, he said, was “in and out of the system.”
Folks who spoke, however, also emphasized that specific security decisions are ones that need to be decided by the school districts themselves, or that a one-size-fits-all approach is not good.
“Each school is different, district to district, building to building, environment to environment," said Miraglia.
Astorino, who started his political career as a Mount Pleasant school board member, was deferential to districts on what to spend for security.
Threats and probability came into play at the meeting. While officials noted that the likelihood of a mass school shooting is low, the trend has gone upward over the past four decades. Boklan noted that from 1968 to 1988 there were 30 school shooting fatalities, but that from 1988 to 2008 there were 160. And while Newtown was a bit of an exception - the shooter did not have ties to the school - Boklan said 96 percent of school shootings are done by students. Miraglia, meanwhile, warned against "normalcy bias," where people underestimate the possibility of a disaster and based thinking of not having dealt with such a problem before.
Another topic discussed was involvement in drills between police, along with school students and staff.
Mount Pleasant police Det. Martin Greenberg, whose jurisdiction involves several school districts, said that schools have asked about involving police in drills. As for including students, he felt it's up to them to decide.
Harrison Superintendent Louis Wool, who is also president of the Lower Hudson Council of School Superintendents, said that in his district police are already involved in drills, including with high school students.
People in the audience offered several questions for the topic.
One item involved security and whether it comes up during the hiring processes for teachers. Wool responded that officials do deal withe concept of life and death when it comes to watching students. He also noted that when children come into their care, away from their parents, officials are then responsible for them.
Kelly Chiarella, a Yonkers school parent and regional director for the Westchester East Putnam Regional PTA, felt that a range of building staff, including officials such as custodians, should also be involved with safety. She said there needs to be a plan that's “always being spoken about and with every single person in the building.”
One audience member asked whether prevention can also lead to a conflict where there is a "witch hunt." The question, which came early in the event, was answered by Bratton, who said it would be the "ultimate difficulty to address." Bratton added that avoiding silos between people who are involved can be a way of stopping a witch-hunt situation.
Wednesday's forum is not the last of its kind. There will be a forum on community violence prevention on April 9, at the County Center building in White Plains.