Wednesday, December 19, 2012

MONSEY - Newtown Tragedy revives East Ramapo's 'trespassing' debate

The massacre at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., Friday that’s caused parents and educators throughout the Lower Hudson Valley to re-examine school security procedures has also recharged an ongoing debate over security in the troubled East Ramapo school district.

Community activists who have repeatedly asked the district to tighten its security policy and post “No trespassing” signs at all 14 school buildings for the better part of a year say the tragedy in Newtown demands a response from the district on what its own protocols are, and what the response would be should a similar security breach occur at home.

“This incident in Connecticut is horrific and it just brings to the surface again the requests that have come down to Willie (Trotman) saying ‘We plead with you to be responsive,’ ” Oscar Cohen, an activist and retired New York City schools superintendent said, referring to Spring Valley chapter president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

Saturday, Trotman wrote a letter to Superintendent Joel Klein and Board of Education President Daniel Schwartz reiterating a request last spring to post signs and work with staff and police to ensure a consistent safety plan is in place.

“In light of yesterday’s tragedy ... in Connecticut, we plead with you to post No-Trespassing signs at all East Ramapo public schools and inform all parents and staff of the district’s updated Safety Plan, including the role of the police, immediately,” Trotman wrote.

Trotman, along with representatives from the East Ramapo Parent Teacher Association and Padres Unidos, a parent activist group, initially wrote the school board in April around the same time complaints surfaced about pedestrians using school property as a short cut — many of them Orthodox and Hasidic Jews who live in neighborhoods around the schools and who don’t drive on certain days.

The school board responded to the spring letter by asking for more information about the specific incidents of trespassing so it could better address the issue.
Activists say they’ve received no formal response from the district and there’s been no action taken that they know of, although one sign has since been posted at Grandview Elementary School. Compounding their concerns are recent staff layoffs, including all of the district’s assistant principals who were involved with patrolling the schools.

“The board has not responded to the NAACP or parents and they’ve just been very frustrated, feeling like the district doesn’t care and is ignoring the people,” said Cohen, of Chestnut Ridge.

Neither Klein nor Schwartz returned calls seeking comment Monday.

Director of Security Tom Carton said Monday the district updates its emergency-response plan every fall and holds regular safety drills. A “rapid mobilization plan” is in place and protocols are established for anything from a gunman to a wild animal entering a school building, he said.

Regarding the trespassing, he said, the district has told all employees they can request a trespasser to leave and call the police if they don’t comply. Police have said they can’t make arrests if there are no signs posted prohibiting people on the property, but Carton disputed that Monday, saying they can now make arrests.

Still, East Ramapo will not post its emergency plan on its website or otherwise make it public because that “will put students’ safety at risk,” Carton said.

“By state law all districts have to have an emergency plan but they don’t have to be made public,” he said.

At least three other school districts in Rockland and Westchester do not post their emergency plans online.

The district plans to hold a community meeting in January to address security-related concerns, he said. It will also invite public input on the verbiage of “No trespassing” signs the district intends to post at all buildings, he said. The meeting was originally planned for this fall.

Trotman said despite these measures, he remains angry about the lack of communication from the district to the NAACP, the PTA and Padres Unidos.

“I’m not satisfied,” he said. “If any of that had changed, it would have been nice to have gotten a response.”

In a letter to parents posted on the district website Monday, Klein wrote that “Safety and security of our students and staff are a major focus for all of us at the East Ramapo Central School District. The tragic incident ... in Connecticut has affected us all. Please be assured that our goal is to have a safe and secure environment in our schools. Staff members have been trained for emergency situations and our emergency plans are updated regularly.”

The letter also said crisis team members will be available to support children.

The letter followed an email to superintendents Friday from state Education Commissioner John King advising school leaders to be alert for students and staff who might need help coping in the aftermath of the tragedy.

By Mareesa Nicosia - Lohud

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