‘An Unfortunate Reality’
– By Josh Durso
South Seneca Central School District Superintendent Steve Zielinski has provided additional insight about the response to Wednesday’s bomb threat, which prompted a full-campus evacuation in Ovid.
The evacuation lasted approximately an hour. Students returned to class, and the academic day resumed.
“It’s an unfortunate reality in 2019 that we must pay so much attention to the full range of threats to safety in our schools,” Zielinski said in a conversation with FingerLakes1.com after the evacuation and response. “Having said that, we are like most of our public school colleagues in that we have full building and district safety plans in place with are regularly reviewed, practiced, and vetted by our partners in law enforcement.”
On Thursday, a student gunman opened fire at a school in Santa Clarita, California. At least two were killed, others hurt. That tragedy will be added to the list of deadly incidents on K-12 campuses in the U.S.
With every new incident comes a new round of debate about the best way to keep students safe at school. For Zielinski, he says that the reality is that every threat needs to be taken seriously. “We need to continue speaking with our children in a developmentally appropriate way,” he explained. “I would encourage them to engage as much as they are comfortable with the school. I agree that these threats are more frequent than ever, and we can only ask that everyone understand that we can’t afford not to take them seriously when they happen.”
It’s the direct question that is getting asked more frequently: Are schools a safe place?
Zielinski says that acts of public violence have not been limited to schools, and part of the solution is ensuring that a strong community dialogue continues. “Anyone with a heart is horrified by the amount of public violence we see in the country today, not only in school but anywhere people gather together,” he added. “We can promise that we are doing everything we know how to do to make our buildings secure, and to foster positive relationships in our schools so we mitigate the risk as best we can.”
The criminal investigation into Wednesday’s threat is progressing, according to Zielinski. However, he noted that since the likelihood was high that a juvenile was responsible for the threat — some information would be withheld. The district did expect the Seneca County Sheriff’s Office to complete their investigation in the coming days.
“Our administrators and I met this morning with the team from the Sheriff’s Office and debriefed the full incident,” Zielinski said of Thursday’s activity at the school. “We do that because we want to make sure we capture everything we can to learn lessons about what went smoothly, and what we could have done better.”
It’s a process. He says that a lot can be learned from drills. But putting those practices into action in ‘real life’ scenarios is why they practice and have plans for different types of events. Each circumstance is unique, and oftentimes, require unique planning and execution beyond the concepts laid out in district policy. That’s why meeting with administration and law enforcement is so important. “It helps facilitate communication with our law enforcement partners,” Zielinski added. He says those conversations with law enforcement are invaluable. “We talk about timing, communication, safety during the actual movement of students in an evacuation, and we think together about ‘What If’ scenarios.”
The timing of it all wasn’t lost on Zielinski either, as he reflected on the tragedy in California. He described it in one word: Surreal. It matched how many across the spectrum were feeling after news of that shooting.
Zielinski says the students are the silver lining, though. “They impress us every day,” he said. “They’ve grown up in an environment of safety drills, and because these have been practiced, they know what to do. Thankfully, they know that not every threat is credible, and just because we take the step to evacuate does not mean we have a high suspicion of danger.”
He says it’s difficult to feel ‘happy’ about the environment students are forced to live in each day at school – but staff are continually impressed by their resilience.
Durso is a lifelong resident of the Finger Lakes. When not overseeing the newsroom he’s hosting Inside the FLX: A weekly program on FL1 Radio. Check out the podcast by clicking here, or by visiting www.InsideTheFLX.com. Follow him on Twitter at @FLXJosh, or say hello by clicking here.