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Local school superintendents continue to address school safety in the wake of Uvalde

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Andover’s Schuelein reacts, Belfast’s Butler pens letter to Governor Hochul

By Andrew Harris

The question we have posed to local leaders: “Is Allegany County next? What can we do to protect our schools today ?”

Andover School Superintendent Dr. Derek Schuelein answered our email over the holiday weekend:

“These tragedies, in which we see young people victimizing other young people are occurring at an alarming rate.  If these events do not speak to the need for additional resources to support the unique social and emotional needs of children today, then I’m not sure what can.  Without the funding to help ensure that we have qualified staff available to work proactively with our youth as they grow and develop, we will forever be reacting.  Beyond funding, the state could do much to eliminate the barriers which can often prevent us in schools from getting our students the help and support they need.  The superintendent of Belfast, Dr. Wendy Butler, actually wrote an outstanding letter to the state about this.  If you have not done so already, I would strongly recommend that you reach out to her.”

The Wellsville Sun immediately contacted Dr. Wendy Butler, superintendent of the Belfast Central Schools this morning. Butler almost quickly responded and included her letter to the Governor and other elected officials:

“I have attached the letter I sent to Governor Hochul. I also sent the letter to all of our NY state and federal government leaders.

The issues we are facing around school safety are not simple. Schools need support for community organizations, Allegany County needs mental health support for students and families, and we need increased accountability for students and families when children repeatedly make bad decisions. The current and systems in New York are very reactive and limit agency authority to work with students until a horrific incident occurs. Our systems need to change and be proactive.

As far as what can be done immediately, schools need to continually connect with students and families to build relationships. Students who are connected to the teachers, schools, families, and communities do not commit the horrific acts that we continue to see in our country.”

May 17, 2022

Dear Governor Hochul,

The tragedy that occurred in Buffalo on May 14, 2022, is devastating to our region, state, and country. There is no room in this world for hate, and we need to work together to help our children learn from the devastation and prevent future acts of pain and suffering.

In the immediate aftermath of the tragedy in Buffalo, educators across the state are reflecting on steps that can be taken to support our students. As the superintendent of a poor, rural school district in Western New York, my District encounters issues with the lack of mental health services, systematic red tape, legislation that limits agency and law enforcement supports, and the lack of parental/guardian accountability that create continuous worry, stress, and anxiety in our staff over how to protect and support our students. Our first priority is the safety and security of our students and staff, for which we need assistance.

To best way to understand the struggles our districts are facing is to depict circumstances of one specific Belfast Central School student.

Timmy (alias) came to BCS as a very bright and angry elementary student living with a close family member because his mother was unable to care for him.

Over the years, Timmy has received counseling services. Our principals, school psychologist, social worker, and counselors have supported him, but he struggles in school. Timmy does not engage in instruction unless he has a relationship with the teacher. Timmy is also a button pusher, which frustrates teachers and leads to limited relationships in classrooms.

This school year specifically, Timmy vandalized school property, trespassed and climbed the roof of the school (after school hours), roams the streets of Belfast, displays behaviors to make staff believe he has experimented with drugs, disrupts classes, and has served in-school and out-of-school suspensions.

Our staff has not given up on Timmy. The school psychologist has built a rapport with him and is trying to setup additional counseling via tele-therapy (because there are next to no providers in our area). BCS staff have held team meetings to identify supports to help Timmy be successful in school and out of school.

On Monday, May 16, 2022, our principal contacted the Allegany County Probation department about filing a PINS (Person in Need of Supervision) petition for Timmy. Our principal was told that a new law now prevents schools from filing a PINS petition for anything other than truancy. (Timmy does not have an attendance problem. He would rather attend school then be home.) The principal was asked if the District filed criminal charges for the vandalism or trespassing. BCS did not file charges. Over the last month, I have been told by NYS Troopers that charges would not be pressed on a student because nothing would be done in the judicial system and that the school needs to handle the matters. For Timmy, pressing charges would create extreme damage to an already tenuous relationship between the school, Timmy, and the guardian, which will only make his issues worse from the school’s prospective.

Timmy’s issues will not be addressed by Child Protective Services, because his basic essentials are met by his guardian.

My frustration over bureaucracy and broken systems hit a breaking point after the shooting in Buffalo and reading information about the assailant. Children turn to social media and hate groups when they feel isolated or that no one cares what happens to them. Children want to be loved and accepted, and hate groups attach to vulnerable people and exploit their needs to further their hate. I am very fearful that my vulnerable students can be swept up in hateful ideology as a way to belong.

Our current systems and processes in New York State perpetuate a reactive system to address our students’ needs. As we move forward as a state, I believe it is essential for our New York State leaders know what is needed to change our schools and society.

  • Our schools are in need of immediate additional funding for school social workers, counselors, and psychologists.
    • Schools are also in need of incentives to bring committed individuals to these critical fields of education, particularly in poor, rural areas.
  • Our schools need support from CPS and probation to help our students and families.
    • Legislation limiting what and how these essential services they can offer students, families and schools are leaving students in unsafe conditions.
    • We need a system that requires parents/ guardians be accountable for poor choices that are continually harming our children.
    • When there is an issue that requires law enforcement, we need the issue to be immediately handled with increased accountably.
  • Our schools need help recruiting qualified teachers to work with our students.
    • Restrictive certification requirements, lack of support of education in families, lowered number of people entering the profession, and initial salaries that are lower than other careers are a few of the issues that are making it increasingly difficult to hire qualified candidates for every teaching position.

Our education system is at a critical point in history. The COVID pandemic initially generated support for educators who immediately transformed instruction to help students. The pandemic also exacerbated the mental health and social needs of our students. Our teachers, counselors, staff, and administrators are working tirelessly to address the social/emotional needs of our students, but additional supports in schools, homes, and communities are necessary.

Unfortunately, Timmy is only one example of systems failing a student, and Belfast is a small school and community. I would love to be able to talk with our state leaders about the day-to-day challenges that are engulfing our public schools to help us collaboratively develop solutions that can be put in place immediately, rather than wait three to five years. I can be contacted via phone at 585-365-9940, e-mail at [email protected], or I would love an in-person visit to our school and community to gather first-hand knowledge of our challenges and triumphs.

Our students deserve the best we can give them.

Sincerely,

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