Harder Security Measures – Along with ‘Softening’ – Planned in Sag Harbor Schools

Sag Harbor Schools superintendent Katy Graves delivers a presentation about security and wellness on May 21, 2018. Christine Sampson photo

The Sag Harbor School District has set out to accomplish the simultaneous “hardening” and “softening” of its campuses when it comes to school security and student wellness.

Superintendent Katy Graves has described “hardening” as increased security, technology, policy and practice geared toward physically making the schools safer, while “softening” means making schools warm and vibrant places where students feel emotionally safe and connected. During Monday’s school board meeting, Ms. Graves said despite being seemingly in opposition to each other, those goals are actually quite complementary, she explained.

“If we make schools too hard, they become unwelcoming to students, which is a known risk factor,” she said in a follow-up conversation on Tuesday. “Students’ lack of connection to school can amplify their isolation and keep them apart from the support systems the students need. If school systems are too soft, without enough strong security systems and practices, we leave our students vulnerable. The safest schools need both working together.”

The school board on Monday approved agreements with police departments in Sag Harbor Village and East Hampton and Southampton towns that will allow them to tap directly into the school district’s security cameras in case of emergencies and to test the systems only when students are not present in the buildings. Ms. Graves said the district has also added more security guards. Sag Harbor is also bringing in a radio system that reaches from Montauk to Westhampton Beach with secure channels that allow for communication if phone lines go down. A one-button lockdown system is in place and a “door ajar” notification system is imminent.

Some of the district’s improved policies and procedures cannot be publicly disclosed, Ms. Graves said, because doing so would compromise the safety of the students and staff.

“We’re going to be talking about this probably every other month for years to come,” she said.

The “softening” of schools was the number-one recommendation that came out of research that followed the Sandy Hook school shooting in December of 2012, according to Ms. Graves. The district has quite a few programs in place that accomplish this, she said — including, to name a few, athletics, theater, arts, clubs, an after-school program operated by a local nonprofit organization, a kindness initiative called Rachel’s Challenge and an extensive, classroom-integrated social and emotional wellness program at Sag Harbor Elementary School led by guidance counselor Michelle Grant. Middle school assistant principal Brittany Carriero also detailed lunchtime social groups for at-risk students “who are a top priority.”

“We are checking in with them constantly,” she said. “Kids that hated school are finally feeling integrated.”

School board president Diana Kolhoff described a moment she experienced while listening to National Public Radio following the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, in February. “They were talking about all the ‘should haves, could haves, would haves,’ and I felt that sense of relief and pride because it was almost like a checklist — we’ve got that, we’ve got that, we’ve got that — knowing what our protocols are and the systems we have in place,” she said. “I had a moment where I said, ‘We are doing everything we can.”

On Tuesday, Ms. Graves said teachers and counselors have been working with students “personally and in small groups to help them manage the stress of today’s world.”

She compared the current movement toward safer schools to historical progress toward fire safety in buildings and research on smoking and other causes of cancer.

“The work is coming together at the national, state and local levels to identify what is working in ‘prevention’ to keep students’ safe,” Ms. Graves said. “Then we need to prepare and practice with every resource we have to keep our students safe.”

“I don’t think there’s a board member or an administrator or teacher or parent who is not feeling this every day,” Ms. Graves added. “There’s a tremendous urgency to get this right.”