School safety bills can't make it to vote in Albany, Starpoint working to pass $30M safety project

Posted at 12:30 PM, May 12, 2023

LOCKPORT, N.Y. (WKBW) — All across Western New York, many taxpayers will be voting on school budgets and capital improvement plans. There is a lot of money on the line.

In many cases, a lot of that money will be used to improve school safety.

But in Albany, there are at least two school safety bills — that would mandate improvements at all schools — that are at a stand still.

Inside any school, in 2023, you never know what's waiting around the corner or at the end of the hall. School Resource Officers patrol the hallways in many schools, making sure your child is safe at school.

SRO Deputy Sarah Wentland said "I'll just scan the school, walk around and just tug [on doors]." She explained one of her main priorities is to make sure those doors are closed and tight so no one can get inside the building.

SRO Wentland
Deputy Wentland was hired as a second school resource officer last year. She patrols the school, interacts with children and is ready to respond in an emergency.

That's among the biggest concerns for the Mura family. They have an eight-year-old, a second grader, enrolled in the district.

"Just knowing that we're giving all of the control to the school, while he's not with us, and we hope that they're doing what's in his best interest to keep him safe, Brandie Mura said. "When they say, wear your heart on your sleeve on your sleeve, it's like, you know, it's you have no control."

Mura family
The Muras, Mike and Brandie, have a second grader enrolled in the Starpoint Central School District. They are concerned about their son's safety, but they laud Superintendent Dr. Sean Croft, for his effort to keep kids safe.

The Muras actually laud Superintendent Dr. Sean Croft, for his efforts to keep kids safe and hiring Wentland as a second school resource officer last year.

Starpoint also has a secure entrance with a sally port. Teachers have also been trained about warning signs for violence.

Croft calls the safety of children a heavy burden.

"There's always the what ifs," Croft said. "You can't cover for every single scenario. So those are the things that keep you up."

Throughout the school building, there are more than 250 cameras.

"Cameras are great. But they're often something to use after the fact," Croft said. "So if there's an incident, we can go back and we have it on video. They're not necessarily something always we can catch in the moment or prevent something."

There's a heavy price tag for protection. In Starpoint, the cost is $30 million. It would be a cost of about $108 for every home assessed at $200,000. All of this, something taxpayers will vote on as part of a larger $69 million capital project plan.

"We're asking the taxpayer that this is a significant investment -- this is for the safety and security of your students and we think it's an important move to make," Croft said. "That's priority number one at this point. Everything else is a distant second."

The school district wants to do away with adjoining classrooms, upgrading the emergency PA alert system and boost security on classroom doors.

Croft door
Dr. Croft shows I-Team reporter Ed Drantch, how doors would lock from the inside of the classroom. Those upgrades are part of a capital project plan.

"The last thing we want in a lockdown is [for] a teacher to have to go find their keys, and then operate keys in that stressful moment," Croft said. "We want things simplified."

Croft wants doors that have locks on the inside of the classroom.

Securitech is a New York company that makes door locks, suggested for use, in school buildings. They lock from the inside, with a quick press of a red button. The door is locked by a deadbolt.

But the 7 News I-Team has obtained a 2022 letter, sent to school administrators, where the New York State Department of Education explains, there has to be a balance between increased security and the requirements for free exit.

Mark Berger is the president of Securitech. He says these locks have to serve a very specific purpose.

"Whatever solution you put in place, respects how they use their space, yet allows them to accomplish the goal that you're trying to do, which in our case is protect students lives during what could be a very traumatic and dangerous and split second time," Berger said. "You feel most comfortable when you're empowered and you can do something simply and the red button , the concept of of red, everybody understands that's something special that you only use it in an emergency."

List price for those door locks is anywhere between $500 and $1,000 each. Berger says schools don't pay list price.

These are some of the locks New York State is suggesting schools use to bolster security.

But hidden deep within the Albany abyss, is a bill, sponsored by a downstate lawmaker that would mandate every school in New York have doors hardened with those or similar locks. That bill, however, has been introduced in 2018, 2019, 2021 and once again, this year.

"Maybe my strategy, maybe I have to adapt my strategy more," Assemblywoman Alicia Hyndman said.

Hyndman just can't seem to get that bill to a vote, let alone out of the education committee.

"I believe schools, if safety and safety and security is a priority for our children, then we would find the money to do that education is one of the biggest parts of our state budget," Hyndman said. "And our schools do receive millions, if not billions of dollars for this. I believe school districts should set aside monies, particularly for the safety of our children."

Ed Drantch speaks with Assemblywoman Alicia Hyndman, via Zoom.

When asked if Hyndman was suggesting schools and school districts individually pay for this or if New York State should pay, she said, "I think when in the money that we give to state to school districts across the state of New York, there was nothing I think school districts can be creative in finding the money to do this kind of work."

Yet, as a concerned parent, she believes it's Albany's responsibility to develop a plan to harden schools.

It's a similar story for Tonawanda Assemblyman Bill Conrad. He's a former Kenmore teacher, now on the Assembly education committee. He supports that downstate lawmaker's bill, but also supports a separate piece of legislation that he says, goes even further. It would exempt school safety improvements from the local tax cap.

"That would give a little bit more freedom, I think and affordability for the school districts to be able to do that," Conrad said.

The money would come from taxpayers in New York State, Conrad told the I-Team. "So your local municipality or your local school district, and or the state," he said.

Assemblyman Bill Conrad

It's worth noting, that bill Conrad supports and has co-sponsored hasn't moved since 2013.

When asked about the likelihood of this bill passing, Conrad said he didn't know.

"It's got bipartisan support on both of these bills," Conrad said. "It's something I think everybody wants to wrap around. We're all fiscally minded, you know, something we don't want to see our taxes increase, but at a certain point, we've got to avert tragedy."

Meantime, in the Starpoint Central School District, with the state reimbursing about 80% of every dollar spent in this capital project, it's now up to taxpayers to move the district forward.

"We've taken steps and we've made significant security upgrades across the district, but this is going to take us to the next level and lead us into the future," Croft said.

The Muras, that family with an eight-year-old student, believe there is a lot more to be done to keep kids safe.

"It's sad that every school shooting that has happened happened," Brandie Mura said. "But I mean, we can learn from all of them and kind of make the changes that we need to make now to prevent them from happening again."

"I have a lot of faith and trust that they're doing everything in their power to make it so that that doesn't happen," Mike Mura said. All you can have is faith, he reiterated.