Albany Notebook: Albany must take steps to ensure school safety

Joe Mahoney 

ALBANY — Walk into New York's state Capitol building — yes, that massive stone fortress where scores of politicians act on legislation — and you'll first have to pass through a metal detector and have your briefcase X-rayed as you are being watched by armed state troopers and an array of security guards.

But we don't come close to providing this level of security for our children attending classes in many of the 6,700 public and private school buildings across New York.

Following the worst year on record for school shootings — 2018, when the Naval Postgraduate School's School Shootings Database kept track of 94 school gun violence incidents across the nation — New York managed to accomplish precious little to harden schools from the possibility of a a gun-involved attack.

Lawmakers did manage to work up a brief sweat passing legislation that addresses something that hasn't been a problem: they pushed through a law that bars school districts from requiring classroom teachers be armed.

In signing that legislation July 31, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said it would "help slow the proliferation of guns by keeping unneeded firearms out of school zones."

A few obvious points about the measure. In New York, there was no clamor for the idea. Police executives, across the board, agreed any such proposal to do so would be met with their opposition. And there is no evidence that teachers packing guns have anything to do with violence in schools.

Even New York's most outspoken opponent of gun control legislation, Tom King, president of the New York Rifle and Pistol Association, said there has been no clamor for arming teachers.

"We have never advocated for arming teachers — never," King said over the telephone.

Extensive research into the outbreak of school shooting rampages has found a common thread in many incidents: youngsters having access to firearms. Mental health issues have also been a factor.

The New York State Sheriffs Association lobbied both this year and last year for the state to fund school resource officers — police professionals who get special training in working with youngsters — to make schools safe so they can be sanctuaries for learning instead of places where a child has to worry about becoming a statistic in a massacre.

Anti-gun lawmakers had a different agenda, however — such as clamping that prohibition on schools requiring teachers to be armed.

"Passing legislation banning teachers from carrying guns is nothing more than trying to get some ink," Clinton County Sheriff David Favro told me. "In New York, pretty much all law enforcement stood together and said teachers shouldn't be carrying guns. They have a tough enough job as it is."

In New York, it would be hard to find a law enforcement professional with more knowledge about school security than Favro. He has spent much of his career working in and with schools. When he was a Plattsburgh police officer, he started the D.A.R.E program in that city. As sheriff, he has helped to foster relationships with the school districts throughout his county, and now all but one pay to have a school resource officer in their buildings, while the one that doesn't, Chazy Central, has a D.A.R.E officer.

"I would love to be part of a forum in Albany to discuss these issues, so we could look at how we could think outside the box and figure out providing school tax credits or some way to reward the schools that are working on public safety programs," Favro said.

Advocates of the idea of having police officers in schools say it helps cultivate a relationship of trust between students and law enforcement, with officers in mentoring roles.

But Democratic leaders in Albany have balked at the idea, buying into assertions by critics who contend the presence of officers in schools could lead to an acceleration of school-based arrests of misbehaving students.

They remain content to let school districts take the tab for addressing security needs while bottling up proposals to have the state pay for school resource officers.

My suggestion to those lawmakers: go talk to the parents in your districts and and find out whether they think the safety of their children should be a top priority. Find out if they want this to be such a top priority that they want the state to financially support local efforts to fortify schools from the threat of gun violence.

Tom King, who regularly visits the state Capitol and the Legislative Office Building, suggests New Yorkers pose another question to their elected representatives: "What makes your butts more worthy of protection than our children?"

As children and their parents prepare for the 2019-2020 school year, King's suggested question is an eminently fair one.

Joe Mahoney covers the New York Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach him at jmahoney@cnhi.com.