Local residents were assured that much is going on behind the scenes to protect citizens and schoolchildren in response to the Newtown, CT tragedy, according to a panel of speakers at the Larchmont/Mamaroneck Local Summit meeting on Tuesday, March 19 at the Nautilus Diner.
“Although this community seems like, feels like, tastes like...a very safe community,” Mamaroneck Town Supervisor Nancy Seligson said, we need to “try to reduce the risk, minimize ourselves as a target.”
Joining Seligson on the panel were Captain Antonino Rigano, executive officer of the Village of Larchmont Police Department; Lieutenant Bob Reynolds, youth officer, Town of Mamaroneck Police; and Meryl Rubinstein, Mamaroneck School District’s assistant superintendent for business operations and point person for school building security.
Panelists explained there now exists a very close coordination known as Town-Village-School (TVS) among the three municipalities (Villages of Mamaroneck and Larchmont and Town of Mamaroneck) and the two school districts (Mamaroneck and Rye Neck). All the entities are working closely together to re-examine safety procedures, preparedness and response. Training, which is ongoing, is critical to both prevent and respond to emergency situations.
Law Enforcement Perspective
A 24-year veteran of the Village of Larchmont Police and currently the Department’s executive officer, Rigano also characterized Larchmont and Mamaroneck as “safe communities.” Rigano, a trained SWAT operator, SWAT supervisor and “Response to Active Shooter” instructor, stressed the importance of training and preparedness and mentioned that all three jurisdictions have recently spent time training together.
Rigano referenced a mitigation risk survey conducted by the New York Police Department that cited three key factors critical to reducing risks associated with emergencies:
- Procedures (e.g., how to exit from a building)
- Systems (e.g. surveillance equipment)
- Training (e.g. emergency drills at schools)
Rigano especially emphasized the importance of training. He said that people “need to know what to do.” It is critical not only to have procedures in place, but to practice those procedures. For example, the police routinely train in our schools, during off-hours, so that they can familiarize themselves with the school buildings.
Lieutenant Bob Reynolds, a 38-year veteran with the Town of Mamaroneck Police and a youth officer, provided insights into the role our youth officers from all three municipalities are playing in regards to emergency preparedness. Youth Officers are in the schools all the time, partnering with school officials to help students. They try to identify at-risk students outside of school and work with the schools to assist them.
“It takes a village to help a student,” said Reynolds, continuing, “Collaboration with the schools and community is so vital.”
“Safety and security were a top priority well before any tragic events happened,” said Rubinstein.
In contrast to the role that the municipal law enforcement officers play—which is often a reactive one—the schools are “always focused on preventing.”
She said each of Mamaroneck’s six school buildings has in place a safety team, procedures and drills. And, while events cannot be totally prevented, Rubinstein said that school officials try to make it as difficult as possible for the unforeseen to happen. She noted that our proximity to Newtown reminded everyone of the need to be prepared and caused the schools to carefully re-evaluate its emergency response procedures, safety systems and training for building personnel and students.
New procedures and systems have been put in place in all the Mamaroneck schools following the Newtown tragedy. At the four elementary schools and Hommocks Middle School, a single point of entry is being enforced and a new buzzer entry system has been installed, requiring visitors to be buzzed in.
At all six schools, including Mamaroneck High School, all visitors are required to leave a photo ID and wear a visitor’s badge while in the buildings. At the high school, which has had a video camera system in place for the past four years, limiting entrance and egress is a bigger challenge due to it being an open campus. The administration is actively seeking ways to improve security there.
In addition to routine fire drills, there have been recent lock-down drills at all six schools. Just as Rigano stressed the importance of training, Rubinstein said that drills are essential.
“It’s how you find out what works and what doesn’t work.”
The district has also been working with a consultant to identify ways to improve school safety. Rubinstein showed samples of laminated posters highlighting “Classroom Emergency Procedures” that address actions required in case of a fire, lock-down, lock-up, evacuation, shelter-in-place or medical emergency. These posters will be hung in every classroom across the district. Acting on another suggestion from the consultant, Rubinstein said that special tape has been purchased to demarcate safety areas for students within classrooms and buildings.
Rubinstein said that the district has a safety committee comprised of teachers, administrators, board members, parents and the police, which reviews and makes recommendations regarding safety initiatives. Rubinstein pointed out that, with the committee help, they are constantly researching and piloting safety initiatives, to ensure that we select the most effective means to keep our schools safe.
Seligson said the Town of Mamaroneck is continuously trying to improve their preparedness to respond to any emergency situation. Department heads meet regularly as a town, and with other municipalities, to study issues and review and refine procedures.
Seligson highlighted several examples of municipal safety programs.
One program, called the Community Emergency Response Team (CERT), is designed to help train interested community members to be better prepared to respond to emergency situations in their communities. Volunteers receive training from first responders and other disaster professionals and are able to support first responders and assist victims in case of a disaster.
Seligson also mentioned the town’s Emergency Response Plan, and the Hazard Mitigation Plan (HMP), a newly funded initiative. FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) is now requiring municipalities to have an HMP in place in order to receive funding for disaster planning. The town will be hiring a consultant shortly to lead this year-long project, which is aimed at understanding the risks associated with a wide range of hazards, then identifying ways to avoid or mitigate the negative impact of those situations.
In closing, Seligson emphasized the need to “think about and address [these types of] issues on a continual basis.”
During a question and answer period, several topics emerged:
Emergency Alerts to Spanish-speaking families: In response to a question about how the district gets messages to its Spanish-speaking families, Debbie Manetta, spokesperson for the Mamaroneck School District, said that the district has pre-recorded a number of messages in Spanish and English for emergency situations, and works with district translator Maria Elena Carullo to prepare any necessary communications.
Gun ownership information: Rigano was asked if local law enforcement officers know which residents own guns. He informed the audience that although in the past, local municipalities were responsible for issuing gun permits, now, the county issues gun permits, and thus, gun ownership information is available only at the county level.
Panic button for “greeters” at the schools: A suggestion was made that the “greeters” at the schools have a “panic button” to enable them to call for assistance in case of a threatening situation. Rubinstein said that they are in the process of installing panic buttons at the schools; these devices will be linked directly to the police’s 911 system.
Need for armed security in the schools?: Is there is a need to have real police officers in our schools? Rubinstein said that at this point, there is a good culture in our schools with plenty of support for our students without needing to have armed police officers there on a routine basis. She said that the schools work very closely with the police, and brings them in on an as-needed basis. Seligson added that this topic was discussed at a recent Town-Village-School (TVS) meeting, and that the consensus of the group was to make the schools as safe as possible, but the preference was not to have armed police in the buildings on a daily basis. What the speakers agreed is important, though, is that students and the police build strong relationships.
School safety plan: Rubinstein indicated that there will be an opportunity for the public to learn more about the Districtwide Safety Plan, before it is adopted by the board. The date for the public meeting is yet to be determined, but will be publicized on the district’s website: www.mamkschools.org .