Canine teams sweep district
By Jeff Simms
After a potential threat of violence against the Beacon City School District, police officers were stationed at Beacon High School and Rombout Middle School on Thursday (March 1), while other officers patrolled the district’s four elementary schools. The Beacon Police Department and other agencies also conducted searches of all six schools.
Superintendent Matt Landahl notified parents Wednesday afternoon that he had received information about “writing” in a bathroom stall at Beacon High School that mentioned March 1 and could be “perceived as a threat.”
Later that evening he contacted parents again to report that police had used 19 canine teams to search and secure each of the district’s buildings.
Those accused of making threats against schools are typically charged with making “terroristic threats,” which is a felony in New York state even if a person does not have the “intent or capability” to carry out an attack. A bill pending in committee in the state Senate and House would specifically classify any threat of mass violence against a school as a felony.
A number of teenagers and young adults have been arrested around the state in the past two weeks for allegedly making threats against schools, including a 21-year-old woman in Rochester who posted a comment on her former high school’s Facebook page; a 23-year-old man in Monroe County who uploaded a music video called “School Shooter” to YouTube; and a 16-year-old from Broome County who allegedly made threatening remarks while riding home on a school bus.
The Educator’s School Safety Network, an organization that tracks threats of violence against schools, reported that nationally as of March 1 there have been 673 threats against schools since the Parkland killings, or about 96 per school day. Before Parkland, the typical count was 10 per school day, it said.
Beacon Police Chief Kevin Junjulas said Thursday morning that canine teams trained for explosives detection from the state and MTA police, the Dutchess and Orange County sheriff’s offices, and the town and city of Poughkeepsie and Middletown police departments combined with Beacon police to comb through each of the district’s school’s Wednesday night.
The teams searched for more than three hours but did not find any credible evidence of a threat, he said.
The threat was the third in Beacon since the Feb. 14 shooting that left 17 dead at a high school in Parkland, Florida. Two perceived threats against Rombout were investigated by police, as well, including an incident on March 1 in which “a student scribbled a few words in one of the girls’ bathrooms with a very vague threat” which Landahl said in a statement that school officials and Beacon police assessed as a “copycat” act. He said a police officer would be stationed at the middle school on March 2, although school was canceled that day due to the weather.
School administrators and police are understandably cautious after the Florida slayings, in which a former student at Stoneman Douglas High School shot and killed 17 students and teachers despite repeated warnings to police that he might be dangerous. There have since been a rash of perceived threats investigated throughout the Hudson Valley, including in Fishkill, Wappingers and Pine Plains.
In Cold Spring, the Haldane superintendent last week sent an email to parents saying police were investigating “rumors” about potential security threats but that none had proved credible.
“I don’t know what to attribute it to,” Chief Junjulas said. “I think a bit of it could be the social media component,” that allows rumors to spread quickly and escalate concern. “This [BHS threat] could have been an attempt to create some type of disruption in the school day.”
The police involvement in Beacon capped a stressful two weeks during which parents, students and administrators have tried to make sense of school safety and procedures.
At the Feb. 26 Beacon school board meeting, Landahl and board members wrestled with how to handle national student protests against school violence, including a 17-minute (one for each person killed in the Florida shooting) walkout on March 14, a march in Washington, D.C., on March 24 and a high school walkout on April 20, the anniversary of the 1999 attack on Columbine High School in Colorado.
Landahl said Monday that the district would not punish students who protest. But as far as the logistics, it’s uncharted territory, he admitted. (Administrators at the Garrison School said some middle-school students had expressed interest in participating in the March 14 walk-out and would not be disciplined for doing so.)
Board Member Michael Rutkoske said the district needs to clearly state its position and make sure it’s not condoning dangerous behavior. Regarding the possibility of assigning a police officer to the district, which was discussed last fall but tabled, he said, “That may be a conversation we want to pick back up again.”
Landahl said the district will add two additional lockdown drills to the four it already conducts each school year, along with eight evacuation drills. The district also plans to hire Altaris Consulting Group of Yorktown Heights, which specializes in school safety.
At the meeting, parents and board members expressed a range of emotions, from anger to confusion and fear. Some urged political action.
“I am going to put a challenge out to everyone,” said Lori Merhige, who is president of the Sargent Elementary School PTO. “Which of you is also willing to stick your neck out? Who of the adults in charge are also going to take a stand on keeping our kids safe by pushing our county, our state, our national government to take action on controlling the amount of weapons being circulated in our country that are being used against our kids?”
James Case, another parent, concisely verbalized what many parents have said they are feeling. “The urgency of this is not just the magnitude of the violence; it’s the frequency,” he said. “I’m scared. I’m genuinely scared.”