By Jessica Bakeman, Albany Bureau
ALBANY -- School districts in New York plan to purchase new security equipment after the Newtown, Conn., shootings and take advantage of higher reimbursement rates the state is offering through its new controversial gun-control law.
The NY-SAFE Act includes a provision allowing schools to be reimbursed at a 10 percent higher rate than usual for building aid if it's for security purchases. The law also establishes "school safety improvements teams" to review districts' safety plans.
The law, adopted Jan. 15 by the Legislature and signed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, was the first and toughest since the school shootings Dec. 14. It has been heavily debated, because it expanded an assault-weapons ban and added tougher gun regulations, but it also aims to make schools safer.
The law, coupled with schools own internal reviews, has put added attention on school safety, officials said.
"Schools are putting in key-less entry systems. They're locking all the doors and making it so you can only get in though one door, the main entrance, and there would be a surveillance camera attached to that door," said Dave Albert, spokesman for the state School Boards Association.
Yonkers Superintendent Bernard Pierorazio said his Westchester County district is already equipped with single entrances, buzzer systems and surveillance cameras, as well as security staff for the larger schools. But he plans to add cameras in entrance hallways.
"We have over 400 -- over 500 -- cameras within the district now, so we're well monitored," he said after testifying Tuesday at a legislative budget hearing in Albany. "It's just a matter of going the extra step further."
In Rochester, another "Big Five" district, scheduled building maintenance will come with new security upgrades, Superintendent Bolgen Vargas said.
"We are modernizing our buildings," Vargas said after the hearing. "Every time that we have an opportunity to repair a building, we are going to have in place the new standards to make sure that the doors and windows are more secure."
Albert said cost probably wouldn't deter districts from purchasing the equipment eligible for partial reimbursement under the law. It covers the purchase of such items as stationary metal detectors, security cameras and safety devices for electronically operated partitions.
Poorer school districts could receive up to 80 or 90 percent reimbursement for the items, based on the way building aid is doled out by the state.
Since the Connecticut shooting, which resulted in the deaths of 20 children and six educators, superintendents have said they're reviewing their safety plans and are open to making changes -- despite being fiscally squeezed by a property-tax cap and growing operational costs.
"This is one of those areas that schools are going to move forward with, because it's just too important," Albert said. "And if installing a security camera or a key-less entrance system is something that is going to improve safety, they're going to go ahead and do that."
The provision in Cuomo's gun law creating the safety teams is effective 60 days after its Jan. 15 passage. A Cuomo spokesman said details will be released soon on the makeup of the safety teams and their work.
The Board of Regents, which oversees the state Education Department, decided at a recent meeting to reconvene a work group that had helped districts create their safety plans originally. In 2000, former Gov. George Pataki signed Project SAVE, a law requiring the plans.
Commissioner John King said at the legislative budget hearing that the work group has included educators, law enforcement officers and mental health professionals.
"We want to do everything possible to support school safety," King told lawmakers. "I think it's both about making sure that schools are taking the steps necessary to secure the building, but it's also about ... focusing on the mental health needs of students, which is a priority for us."