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Parents, teachers raise concerns on school safety in Syracuse

Tom Magnarelli
WRVO Public Media
From left to right: Syracuse Police Chief Frank Fowler, Superintendent Jaime Alicea, school district Director of Public Safety Thomas Ristoff.

Parents and teachers shared concerns on school safety at a forum held this week by the Syracuse City School District and Syracuse Police Department. Several recurring issues were raised to administrators and law enforcement. The forum was held in response to the high school shooting in Florida last month. 

Talina Jones’ 14-year-old son is transitioning from middle school to high school in the district. He is black, has Down Syndrome, some speech delays and an intellectual disability.

“Physically, he’s a big boy," Jones said. "When he gets tired and his body language says, no I don’t want to listen to you mom, and I don’t want to listen to anything anybody else has to say, you might read him as aggressive. Not a bone in his body.”

Jones wants to know how students with disabilities, like her son, are included in school safety plans.

“If he thinks that you’re in that caring mode, and you’re trying to get him to safety, fine," Jones said. "If he thinks you are going to harm him, you might get a different response, and I don’t want him to be harmed because we haven’t taken a second, when things are not crisis mode, to think about how we’re going to do that.”

While some people said they wanted more information on the district’s response plan to an active shooter, they did say they were satisfied that officials were listening to them. Celia Rea, a substitute teacher in the district said she has not had any active shooter training.

"I would like to know in a school building, what I'm supposed to do to protect those children," Rea said. "I just would hate to do the wrong thing in a dangerous situation. Even in a fire drill, I have to ask the kids which way to go during a fire drill, or follow the other people. It would be nice as a district if we gave that to every school."  

Parents were worried about metal detectors not being used in the evenings and multiple entrances into schools. But Thomas Ristoff, the director of public safety for the district, said the answer may not be more metal detectors.

“I’m more a fan of let’s train our students and our staff on how to read people and respond to people and provide them with support," Ristoff said. "The metal detectors are simply a tool. They can’t supplant that human interaction and that nurturing that needs to take place.”

With just under 4,000 employees in the district, including substitutes, plus contract workers, Ristoff said he does want a consistent training message so everyone is on the same page.

"Especially in the time of a crisis, we want people to respond and know the response is the same," Ristoff said.

The forum was meant to start a dialouge between administrators and the community and to make people aware of the district's safety procedures.

Tom Magnarelli is a reporter covering the central New York and Syracuse area. He joined WRVO as a freelance reporter in 2012 while a student at Syracuse University and was hired full time in 2015. He has reported extensively on politics, education, arts and culture and other issues around central New York.