Saturday December 22, 2012

ZEKE WRIGHT

Staff Writer

HOOSICK FALLS, N.Y. -- A single, secure point of entrance is a chief state Education Department recommendation in guidance documents for school safety. In New York, every board of education must have in place both a district-wide school safety plan and a building-level emergency response plan.

But similar security measures were up-to-date at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., where last week's shooter reportedly forced his way in by breaking through a window. The .223 caliber Bushmaster semiautomatic rifle used in the shooting, a modified civilian version of the military M-16, spurred additional discussion Thursday about the role of local school boards in ensuring the safety of their students.

"We have one responsibility," as a board, said Hoosick Falls Central School board President Greg Laurin; that being school policy and procedure -- including security safeguards. Laurin asked HFCS board members whether they would support a letter to lawmakers endorsing "that they take steps to improve gun control."

"We speak for the schools. ... It's a way of speaking out on something that's important," he said.

Board members were divided, not on the topic of limiting access to high-capacity ammunition clips or assault-style weapons but on whether the issue fell under the board's purview. Board member John Helft said he personally supported more restrictions but he did not believe it was a position the board should take. "It's a political statement."

Board member Ric Ferrannini agreed with Helft and cautioned of a slippery slope with future hot button issues. "It's not our position (to take)," said Ferrannini, although he later said he would agree with a more general statement that Laurin characterized as "encouraging our legislators to take appropriate action where gun control is concerned."

On Friday, the National Rifle Association held a press conference in which the association's executive vice president, Wayne LaPierre, called for a "blanket of safety" in every school in the form of trained, armed security. LaPierre began his remarks by railing against "gun-free school zones," a result of federal action in 1990 that made it a crime for individuals to carry firearms in a school zone with few exceptions.

New York law enforcement have stepped up their presence at schools this week, although that response has been more about increased visibility and familiarity with building layouts than increasing the amount of firearms in schools.

Superintendent Kenneth Facin called New York Senator Charles Schumer a leading gun control advocate Thursday and pointed to bills already introduced in the state Assembly and Senate. Board member David Sutton said he did not want to politicize the issue either but voiced some support for a letter. "I don't see any harm in saying, ‘Yes, something should be done' to show solidarity."

"Those 20 kids were our kids," said Sutton.

Board member Donald Skott said as a hunter he had no issue with a letter, but he said the board should be in unanimous agreement.

Board member Dwain Wilwol said there were laws in place but that firearms still "end up in the wrong hands."

"I think we should just try to make the school as safe as we can," he said.