By Kathleen Kellogg
Ellicottville Central School officials reassured scores of parents gathered in the High School gym Tuesday night, explaining the District’s emergency response protocols that were activated Friday, March 23, soon after a hand-drawn map was found around 8:25 a.m. suggesting a student’s threat.
Superintendent Robert Miller told the parents he called police and activated the “Shelter in Place” protocol at 8:30 a.m. and then sent out a “robocall” to notify parents that a threat was being investigated.
He said “Shelter in Place” is the “least intrusive” of the “big four” procedures, used when there is a need to clear hallways and keep the students in their rooms. It is also used as a transition or staging tool while administrators and responders assess the situation.
Miller said he couldn’t share everything that went into the morning’s decisions and protocols once the threat awareness was triggered. Police were on the scene within two minutes and more arrived within eight minutes. Soon, he said, there were 16 officers on the scene from various agencies, including Ellicottville Village Police, Cattaraugus County Emergency Services, Cattaraugus County Sheriff and the New York State Police. They worked with school staff to study the “map with comments and some arrows and lines.” They slowly pieced together clues, where the map came from and where it was found, the location of students and key information from their records.
“We weren’t coming up with somebody right away so we decided on a lockout. What if the kid is absent, if the kid that had the map was outside?” said Miller.
Officials maintained the “Shelter in Place” protocol and added the “Lockout” protocol, a “low-intensity” procedure to lock all exterior doors and windows in response to an actual or potential threat outside the school. Classroom activities continued as Miller and his team worked with 16 law enforcement officers to interview students and identify the creator of the map. Using police escorts, staff and volunteers served a simple lunch of pizza and fruit to each classroom, and students were taken in groups for restroom visits.
“Once it was determined who was the creator of the map and we had them secured, that’s when we came out” of the combined protocols at about 12:30 p.m. and the school day resumed, Miller said, noting the procedures were not perfect but they worked, and police agencies were able to communicate consistently using the protocol terms. There was no need for the more serious procedures of “Evacuation” and the highest alert, “Lockdown,” where a threat is imminent, and students and staff are hidden and silent.
Miller said even as Friday’s events are still being reviewed by the District’s Safety Committee, protocols are being refined and students are being surveyed, he and his staff have learned a lot about the need to improve communications with parents and when it is safe to do so. He said the effort to find the owner of the map prevented early calls to the media and after the “Lockout” ended, some media representatives didn’t request more information.
“I think I could have shared more information in my first robocall” to say students were beginning a “Shelter in Place” with normal activities inside classrooms, then a second robocall informing parents he had activated “Lockout.”
“I apologize for that. Sincerely,” Miller said.
He recalled the District’s participation in past trainings and drills, and safety instructions by law enforcement personnel during the March 16 staff development day. He pointed to stepped-up Safety Committee meetings planned through the end of summer to maintain threat preparedness. Also, he said, the state will not count Friday as one of two required lockdown drills that must be staged before the end of the school year, to be announced in a robocall a few days in advance.
Meanwhile, students from second grade through 12th grade have already been surveyed about the District’s response. A Monday morning assembly program and Powerpoint, led by Middle School/High School Principal Erich Ploetz, centered on a climbing theme to challenge the students from grades 6 through 12, to restore healthy communication and relationships with teachers.
Ploetz said he did not lie to the students or try to guarantee anything, but reminded them they wouldn’t be in the building if the campus was not safe. He also assured them bullying and a hit list were not involved in the threat, and that the source of the map had been found and steps are being taken to resolve the concern. He reviewed the “little things” to stay safe: no cell phones, no ear buds in classes or hallways, maintain silence during drills, trust adult instructions.
“The important takeaways are, at ECS, you are safe, you are known, you are not invisible and you are loved,” he told the students, pointing out that Ellicottville was the safest place in the county with the number of law enforcement personnel present on Friday.
Ploetz said the student survey identified a small number of students who admitted they have no trusted adult at school and efforts are underway to match them with teachers or other school staff. Ploetz displayed a poster made by some of the students who heard his message.
Some parents wanted to know if there is a possibility for school resource officers (SRO) or armed personnel and Miller reminded them the SRO salary would add 1 percent to the tax levy. Early SROs were provided through New York State Police grants, he recalled, and many grant funds are out of reach because the number of free and reduced lunch recipients don’t equal 50 percent of the student body. Therefore, Ellicottville is not eligible for some grants.
One attendee commented that there are officers eager to volunteer to guard the school and Miller urged parents to contact their state lawmakers about proposed legislation that could help provide funds for SROs.
Administrators said they are treating laws protecting families and privacy very seriously, refusing to give the parents details about the identity of the child who drew the map, what criminal charges may be filed and reporting practices when a student may be having problems or is being bullied.
They assured them that the parents will be told of problems, while teachers and substitutes will continue to receive training in recognizing children at risk and emergency response protocols. County Emergency Services Director Chris Baker offered to conduct a drill for parents to see how a threat scenario and a response might unfold.
“We as school administrators have more latitude and power than law enforcement,” Miller said. “We only need reasonable suspicion to search someone, police have to have probable cause.”
In response to one mother’s request, he said he would look into taking possession of students’ cell phones, and the parents applauded when Miller said he sees no reason for an elementary school student to film videos with a phone device.
“Kids today are addicted to these even if they are the victim… There are more problems in these things that you want to know.”
Some parents suggested emergency notices could be posted publicly on social media, or sent to cell phones or the Amber Alert system. Miller said the matter is still being studied, and more work needs to be done on communication and news releases, but he reported the Facebook messages he saw after the event showed misinformation traveled faster than it could have been processed at the school.
“We’re going to have to think and use common sense,” Miller said.
After the parent information session, the Board of Education held its monthly meeting in the Library, approving a $12,753,502 budget proposition for 2018-2019, a proposition for a $36,000 lease for two 66-passenger International School Buses for each of the next five years, and a proposition for a $31,164 levy supporting the Ellicottville Memorial Library. A public hearing is set for 7 p.m. May 8 in the High School Cafeteria. The propositions and two Board vacancies will be decided by District residents in a May 15 vote.
A mother and father of an ECS student then questioned Board members about the identity of a staffer and a timeframe of an investigation into an alleged incident involving aggression toward their child. Connie Poulin, Director of Special Education, told the couple that the employee has been placed on administrative leave. Board President Connie Hellwig said personnel matters cannot be discussed in open session. The couple urged the Board members to address the safety concerns promptly and keep them informed. Miller assured them he has worked on the matter in the aftermath of last Friday’s threat emergency and will continue to pursue it.
Also approved were:
– a cooperative purchasing agreement under BOCES;
– a $70,000 appropriation from the Repair Reserve Fund for cafeteria and buildings and grounds equipment. There had been no public comments during a brief public hearing preceding the vote.
– a four-year contract from 2017 through 2021 with Buffamante, Whipple and Buttafaro, PC, for a four-year external auditing services for the following amounts in each consecutive year: $15,500, $15,900, $16,300, and $16,700.
– acceptance of a donation of two scoreboards from the Ellicottville Sports Boosters for the softball field and the baseball field.