Superintendent Message 4.20.2022 (Written)

Hello Red Jacket Families,

At this time, I would like to address some conversations that are occurring within our school community.

First, I would like to share some information regarding the history and plans for a School Resource Officer. Our partnership with the Ontario County Sheriff’s Department began many years ago, when I became the middle school principal and was given the responsibility of the Emergency Response Committee for the District. At the time, we were dealing with a series of bomb threats. I enlisted the support of Sheriff Povero’s team, as well as support from the Ontario County’s Emergency Management staff, our local fire chiefs, teachers, support staff, parents, and administration to address the threats, and put into place our District’s Emergency Response Plans and Procedures.

These plans have evolved over time as we practiced our drills and studied responses from various school shootings. During these initial years, another administrator and I invited Sheriff Povero and Officer Peck to join us at our Board meetings because we were advocating for an SRO. It took several years to garner the support needed to implement this program in our schools. In the meantime however, the Ontario County Sheriff’s Department included me in their SRO trainings and they worked directly with our school to train us, and refine and practice our Response Plans.

Because of this ongoing collaborative work, our Response Plans became model plans used to assist other schools in our region with the development of their plans. I came to know first-hand that the dynamic circumstances we deal with in an emergency situation, largely dictate the decision-making in the moment.

There is no one specific Plan that will completely address every unique emergency situation. We will work on placing more emphasis on the need for flexibility for dynamic circumstances in our Plans moving forward. More importantly, we will continue to work with staff on improving their communication for lockdowns and hold-in-place procedures so that everyone receives the vital directives needed during an emergency situation.

I have requested a review of our response, not only for the Board’s information, but MOST importantly to assist our Emergency Response Committee in determining how we can use this experience to make improvements to our Emergency Responses. This will begin after the criminal investigation has concluded.

I became Superintendent in 2013, and was very grateful that by 2016, there was enough support to begin our District’s very first SRO Program. The SRO provided support to our schools and the Red Jacket Education Center BOCES Program, housed within our school building. BOCES helped pay for this service that they benefited from.

In 2020, when Governor Cuomo announced a 20% reduction in state aid, like many schools, including BOCES, we had to make some very difficult decisions. BOCES was no longer able to partner with us to help pay for the mutually benefiting SRO Program.

During the pandemic, the primary concern in our District was the growing mental health needs of our students; this became our number one priority. We hired several additional counselors to proactively address the growing mental health crisis and we placed the SRO program on pause. As I will share later, however, with the restoration of the school’s state foundation aid, we will be reactivating the SRO program.

Secondly, I would like to address the importance of Mental Health support for our students, staff and school community.

Before the pandemic, we were seeing an increase in worsening mental health among our students. Disruptions related to the COVID-19 pandemic, such as hybrid instruction, social isolation, and family hardship have caused an alarming increase in mental health needs. This trend is not exclusive to Red Jacket.

The CDC sited a national study from the 2021 Adolescent Behaviors and Experiences Survey, in which 44.2% of high school students reported they experienced persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness, 19.9% had seriously considered attempting suicide, and 9% had attempted suicide during the pandemic, which underscores the urgent need to address mental health needs among our youth.

A recently published CDC analysis shines additional light on the mental health of U.S. high school students during the pandemic, stating their research shows that surrounding youth with proper support, can reverse these trends and help our youth now and in the future.

In 2018, the District hired an additional high school counselor, increasing to two full-time counselors in the high school. As the mental health needs continued to escalate, we increased a half-time counselor to full-time at the Elementary School, increasing the elementary school to two full-time counselors. Additionally, we hired a K-12 counselor and an additional part-time, K-12 school psychologist, providing Red Jacket with a significantly higher than an average counselor to student ratio; this is a higher counselor to student ratio than the American School Counseling Association recommends.

These professionals provide mental health services to our students, as well as provide strategies to staff on how to handle struggling students. They are instrumental when helping various school teams develop individualized plans to meet the unique needs of students. To support the mental health needs of our staff, we also purchased the Employee Assistance Program (EAP), which provides them, and their families, with unlimited access to counseling, as needed.

Additionally, our elementary school has a trained prevention specialist, Dawn Jansen, from Ontario County who works with our students on the - Too Good for Violence Program, two and a half days a week. Senior Youth Specialist, Amanda Rissew, from Safe Harbors of the Finger Lakes, spends one day a week in the elementary building working with students. Dawn and Amanda are with us tonight and will be sharing additional information about their programs during the scheduled presentation on the Board’s agenda. The middle school has adopted the Character Strong Social Emotional Learning (SEL) Program for their students, which will also be presented tonight.

We also partner with several local outside agencies to provide more specialized mental health support for all our students and their families.

In addition to our emergency response work and additional mental health services, we have increased safety in our school buildings by adding more cameras, adding the Raptor System, installing thumb-turn locks to all our classrooms and office doors, providing controlled remote access with cameras at our entrances, replacing exterior doors with swipe card access, creating secured entrances with single point of access, and also by placing safety film on windows.

We are currently installing a new PA system that has enhanced safety features for use in emergency situations. The wiring installation for the system began at the end of March. We are also discussing the feasibility of a weapons detection system or metal detectors and, as has already been planned, we are reimplementing the SRO Program.

As we navigate our response to the events that occurred on April 1st…

We will continue to maintain our partnership with the Ontario County Sheriff’s Department and have requested the restoration of our SRO Program. This decision was made prior to the incident on April 1st. Since then, however, we made the decision to increase these services from 30 hours per week to full time.

The incident that occurred on April 1st has been emotional for all of us.  Thanks to the courageous acts of a staff member, who had ongoing training and preparation, a dangerous situation was de-escalated. The staff member’s immediate utilization of strategies from training received in Therapeutic Crisis Intervention (TCI) and Restorative Practices, along with the implementation of our District’s Emergency Response Plan procedures were key. Administration and several support staff members, including BOCES staff, worked together in collaboration with law enforcement on the day of the incident. Our students and all the rest of our staff were safe in their classrooms.  

It is because of training and preparedness that a tragedy didn’t happen at Red Jacket on April 1st. Our level of preparedness and training enabled staff to respond at a critical moment during a serious situation, resulting in a safe and positive outcome. This doesn’t mean that the implementation of our Response Plan Procedures by everyone was perfect, but there is no doubt that training, preparedness, the safety plan, and our response thankfully worked!

It is human nature to ask, “what if” questions. What if the staff member who de-escalated the situation wasn’t trained and equipped to use the strategies learned?  

Our Emergency Response Committee, that includes law enforcement and emergency responders will work together, analyze our response, and ask critical questions so that we can learn from this incident to improve and continue to enhance school safety. School safety requires a comprehensive approach that includes all stakeholders working together; this includes parents.  

We recognize that this event has caused trauma in our school community.  To address this, the District and BOCES Trauma Illness and Grief (TIG) counseling teams were on site Friday, April 1st, Saturday, April 2nd, and also during the week following the incident, to support our students and staff. Additional security measures were put into place as well. The District also encouraged staff to access the free, unlimited Employee Assistance Program (EAP) counseling services the District provides to all its employees and their families.

All students are legally entitled to a Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) in the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE). In addition, all students are legally entitled to privacy and not have their confidential student information shared. The sharing of private student information is not only illegal, but it is a betrayal of the confidence parents need to have in our school employees to guard the private information of their children. This is very troubling and reflects poorly on our school.

While some may believe that the Superintendent, Board of Education, or other staff members can approve or deny access to students in our public school, they are wrong, state and federal laws prohibit this.  

We understand that people have questions and want more information. However, the District cannot legally provide additional information about students. Nor can we provide information about our staff or interfere with the active criminal investigation and prosecution.

On behalf of our District, I would like to thank the Ontario County Sheriff’s Department, the Wayne-Finger Lakes BOCES Staff, and our community for the tremendous support we have received. We are so appreciative.

With Red Jacket PRIDE & Gratitude,
Charlene Dehn
Superintendent of Schools