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HOW SAFE ARE OUR SCHOOLS?

By: Ellen Geller Kamaras



The recent Parkland tragedy has yet again put us on high alert. We again recognize that we must ensure our safety and security protocols and procedures are reviewed, evaluated, updated and robust enough to “deter, detect, and react” to active shooters and other emergencies.1

On February 14, 2018, a horrific school massacre occurred in Parkland, Florida at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Nikolas Cruz, the suspect, a troubled former student who had been expelled from the school, used an AR-15 to kill 17 people (14 students and 3 staff members) and injure several others. Five of the victims were Jewish. Cruz legally purchased the assault weapon he used.

The Parkland tragedy happened a little over five years after the horrendous shooting in Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. On December 14, 2012, twenty-year-old Adam Lanza fatally shot 20 children between six and seven years old and six adult staff members. Lanza had also been a former student at his school.

Dr. Joshua Gleis, author and President of Gleis Security Consulting, LLC (GSC), described the Sandy Hook massacre as “the 9/11 of the American school system.” He further explained that it was the wake-up call that resulted in parents demanding schools improve their security, and administrators evaluating what changes were required, how quickly they could be put into place, and who would fund these changes.

Dr. Gleis and GSC have worked with many New York Jewish schools and religious institutions to implement vigorous security protocols and procedures including training, equipment and guards. Community Security Alliance (CSA)2 hired Dr. Gleis as their security consultant because of GSC’s focus is on training people. “You can have the best security cameras, but security cameras in reality don’t stop bad guys, it’s people that do,” Dr. Gleis astutely noted.

Reactions to the Parkland catastrophe ranged from shock, grief, and heartbreak to outrage, anger, and blame. The responses from the students that survived the shootings included these varied emotions. Additionally, the survivors also showed courage, spunk, maturity, unity, resilience, and a burning determination to effect change and prevent an active shooter from inflicting carnage in a school again.

On February 18th, five of these Parkland students organized a march on Washington and in every city in the U.S., called “March for Our Lives.” They declared their refusal to accept that mass school shootings are the new norm in the U.S.
They seek to turn the tragedy into an opportunity for change. The students declared: "Every kid in this country now goes to school wondering if this day might be their last. We live in fear."

Dr. Gleis commented, "It doesn't have to be this way. Change is coming. And it starts now, inspired by and led by the kids who are our hope for the future. Their young voices will be heard."

Their plan is to “beg for their lives” and demand that lawmakers set aside their differences and introduce the necessary gun reform laws to make schools safe again.

On February 21st, seven days after the Parkland massacre, students from that school, as well as parents of students who died, were among those invited to the White House to meet with President Donald Trump to discuss school safety in what was dubbed a “Listening Session.”

A week after the shootings, Parkland students also organized an estimated 3,000 students to rally on the steps of the Florida State Capitol, chanting “Never Again!” and “Shame on You!” and demanding gun control legislation. Less than a week after the massacre, Florida lawmakers voted against a motion to consider a military-style firearm ban for guns such as the AR-15 that was used in Parkland and other recent mass shootings.

When I first saw #NEVERAGAIN tweeted, I had a flashback to my high school days, and I remembered Rabbi Meir Kahane, A”H, whose followers chanted “Never Again!” in fighting
Anti-Semitism. Rabbi Kahane was an American/Israeli political activist and rabbi who founded the Jewish Defense League (JDL) in 1968. JDL's mission was to protect Jews from local acts of anti-Semitism.

Dr. Gleis clarified that all schools are vulnerable to attacks by a mentally disturbed person, a disgruntled employee, or an angry student. Jewish schools however have an even higher risk of attack than other schools due to the added factor of anti-Semitism.

School leaders and key Jewish organizations also reacted quickly and fervently to the Parkland shootings. Over one hundred heads of New York independent schools joined together and crafted an open letter to the President and legislative leaders to speak out against gun violence. The letter appeared as a full-page ad in the New York Times on Sunday, February 25th. A number of yeshivot participated.

A similar letter was signed by many of these Heads of School in response to the Sandy Hook Massacre in 2012. After the horror of the Parkland tragedy, these leaders felt compelled to rise up again and say, “Never Again!” They implored the President and national legislative leaders “to do everything necessary to stem this tide of senseless gun violence. Address, and ultimately deny, unrestricted access to weapons and ammunition that have no legitimate sporting, recreational, or protective purpose.”

The Heads of School also stated that they “found inspiration in the voices and actions of the students who are refusing to go about business as usual... and stand ready to help in this effort, and we encourage our colleagues leading schools across the country to join us.”

In addition to New York schools, major American Jewish organizations are also pushing for stricter gun control laws. These include the Orthodox Union (“OU”), Hadassah, Uri L’Tzedek, B’nai B’rith International, and the Anti-Defamation League. Nathan Diament, director of the OU’s Advocacy Center, said that the OU “will likely support” all three of the legislative proposals being discussed by Congress. These include a bill to expand criminal background checks on prospective purchasers of guns, renewal of the federal ban on assault rifles, and legislation that would institute universal background checks, ban individuals on the terrorist watch list from buying guns, and outlaw bump stocks. Bump stocks were used by the Las Vegas shooter who killed 58 people, allowing him to upgrade his weapons from semiautomatic to automatic, giving them rapid-fire capabilities.

The OU is also requesting additional federal and state funds for the security needs of Jewish schools. Currently, schools can apply for homeland security grants of $75,000. New York State recently made $50,000 grants available to schools for security upgrades and training. New York City provides funds for unarmed guards in the schools.

On March 6, 2018, another letter to the President was written calling for action after the Parkland shooting. It was signed by 139 Jewish day school leaders in the U.S. and Canada. The letter was spearheaded by Prizmah, a group representingover 300 Jewish day schools. These leaders voiced support for the student movement, calling for gun reform and seeking political change. They did not take a position on whether schools should support student walkouts planned nationwide for March or April.

 “As leaders in our communities, as Jews of conscience, and most of all, as those who have taken on the sacred task of educating and protecting our children, we feel compelled to join our nation’s youth to demand action that will increase safety in all of our schools,” the letter reads.

The leaders urged President Donald Trump, federal and state lawmakers, and citizens “to enact common sense legislation that addresses all factors contributing to a safe and secure educational community, including restrictions and safeguards related to guns.”

Both the February and March letters to the President were signed by leaders from schools from various denominations and affiliations, whose students ranged in age from early childhood through high school.

In the wake of the Florida mass shootings, Mayor De Blasio announced new lock down drills, and unannounced weapons checks in NYC schools.

Spokespersons from a number of NYC Jewish high schools stated that their foremost responsibility and their top priority is to ensure that students and staff are safe and secure in their schools at all times. Over the last several years, yeshivot have contracted with security consultants, creating protocols and procedures for a variety of different security scenarios. Security, safety, and lockdown drills, in addition to fire drills, are performed on a regular basis. Staff and students are well-versed and prepared for any scenario that, Gd forbid, may occur.

When a tragedy such as Parkland occurs, each yeshiva’s security consultant reassesses and revaluates, then ensures that their procedures and protocols are up to date for any scenario, including an active shooter. The procedures followed must be in accordance with the latest security measures. Furthermore, certain yeshiva officials said they go above and beyond the requirements instituted by the NYC public schools.

One yeshiva spokesperson noted that some security procedures are more obvious to the public than others, which are more discreet.

Dr. Gleis expounded on this point. “Kids need to be kids.
You don’t want them to walk into a school that feels like a prison...
It’s a balance between creating a warm environment for your students but leaving much more than meets the eye.”

Individual teachers in classrooms held conversations with their students to address the Florida deadly shootings.

The yeshivot also have experienced guidance counselors
on staff to help students and staff cope with any tragedy that occurs, and to deal with any anxieties related to what happened in Parkland. The schools encourage the students and teachers to discuss their views and feelings regarding any tragedies that occur.

One official spoke of his yeshiva’s participation in Project Safe, a dynamic, school-based life skills program that prepares students for the pressures and dangers they face in today’s world.

Dr. Gleis noted other crucial factors needed for keeping our children and staff safe. He stated that schools need to focus on operational security and training, i.e., security guards need to be highly trained and experienced and a crisis management team needs to be in place. Students and staff must also be trained in protocol and procedures in order to save lives.

Yeshiva officials expressed their heartfelt condolences for all those affected by the Parkland shootings.

Ellen Geller Kamaras, CPA/MBA, is an International Coach Federation (ICF) Associate Certified Coach. Her coaching specialties include life, career,
and dating coaching. Ellen can be contacted at: ellen@lifecoachellen.com
(www.lifecoachellen.com).

1 This article includes information that was based on interviews with Dr. Joshua Gleis, author, security consultant, and analyst, as well as several leaders of NYC yeshiva high schools.
 Dr. Gleis has served as a consultant to politicians, religious institutions, schools, community centers, government agencies, and investigative firms. He uses his unique background
 and expertise as a threat analyst to better protect institutions. Dr. Gleis has trained thousands on situational awareness, emergency response, and operational procedures.

2 The Community Security Alliance (CSA) is a nonprofit organization formed to help ensure the security and the safety of our Sephardic community’s institutions through a
 thorough, carefully-designed and coordinated plan of actions and protocols.