November 3 , 2007


Preparing for the worst, hoping for the best

Schools increase awareness, security measures as school shootings become more common


Bob Ellis/staff photographer
CPD officer and Cortland City Schools Resource Officer, Rob Reyngoudt, watches students pass between classes at Cortland Junior-Senior High School Wednesday morning.

Staff Reporter

DRYDEN — Students huddled together Thursday morning in the corner of darkened classrooms with their books, trying not to be seen. The school was silent as students and teachers waited for word that the lockdown had ended.
Approximately 600 students at Dryden Elementary School were involved in the drill, something the school has been doing for four years now.
“The possibility of having a dangerous situation inside or outside the building is unfortunately a reality,” said Dryden Elementary School Principal Sandra Sherwood. “So being prepared, having a plan and practicing that plan, just makes sense … you don’t know when something is going to happen.”
Since the Columbine High School massacre in Littleton, Colo., on April 20, 1999, there have been 29 school shootings in the United States — six of them in the last year.
School violence has become a common occurrence in American society. Locally, area schools and colleges are taking steps to prepare for the threat of a possible school shooting.
“I always thought about it happening here. Most school shootings happen in small towns,” said Sarah Barnes, 30, whose son attends Randall Elementary School. “I just think the threat is always there and the goal is to deal with it before it happens.”
Larry Spring, superintendent of the Cortland City School District, said the possibility of a school shooting locally is something his district has looked at.
“It’s certainly a thing we have considered, but we have plans in place to try and prevent it from happening,” he said. “I think every school administrator in the country worries about it.”
Schools throughout the county have security cameras, police officers stationed in schools and a multidisciplinary team of people to assess the risk of some students.
“We have 20 security cameras that act as an awareness measure. When people see cameras they act differently,” Spring said. “But it’s more important to seek out what kids are in need, which kids are crying out for help. Most of the school shooters expressed some form of need for a while.”
Spring said administrators, social workers, guidance counselors, school psychologists and even teachers pay attention to students’ behaviors.
“It’s important to know which kids are feeling like that early on, so we can get them the help they need,” he said. “From a national perspective, school violence seems to be a growing problem. But I am not sure if schools are more of a danger today than five years ago.”
In 2002, the U.S. Secret Service and U.S. Department of Education completed the Safe School Initiative, a study of school shootings and other school-based attacks. The study examined school shootings in the United States from 1974 through the end of the school year in 2000, analyzing a total of 37 incidents involving 41 student attackers.
The study found that school shootings are rarely impulsive acts and that the person does not just “snap.” Rather, they are planned in advance.
The study also found that prior to most shootings, other students knew the shooting was about to occur but did not alert an adult. In addition the study revealed there is no one “profile” of a school shooter.
The school psychologist at Homer said many violent acts in schools stem from children being tormented by their peers.
“Studies show that there is some aggression in the shooters,” said Diana Malone, a psychologist for the Homer Junior High and Intermediate School. “Most instances are in response to being humiliated and bullied, having revenge as a motive. A lot of people think the shooters were the bullies, but they were actually the ones being bullied.”
Malone has been in the psychology field for more than 20 years, primarily working with children with disruptive disorders.
“Children come to school with a collective experience,” Malone said. “No one factor is decisive. You look at their behavioral characteristics and personality. … It’s a deliberate and focused process that will assess the type of threat and level of risk.”
Early last month, 14-year-old Asa Coon, a native of Cortland County, shot and injured two students and two teachers at a Cleveland High School before killing himself.
Coon grew up in a home of neglect, drugs, and in a family with criminal tendencies, according to court records. His older brother Steven, was the most troubled, with legal problems including burglary and assault.
Classmates told the news media that Coon got into fights and was bullied at his school, SuccessTech Academy. It was also reported that the boy often spoke of suicide and revenge.
The family moved from the Cortland area when Coon was 3 years old.
The situation with Coon fit many findings of the Safe School Initiative study. Students heard Coon threaten another student, saying, “I’m going to get you” to another student after a fistfight only several days before Coon snuck in knives and guns to carry out his plan, but never alerted anyone. It was also reported that many teachers were concerned with Coon’s behavior in and out of class.
“It’s scary to think about,” said Dawn Peterson, 41, who has a daughter who attends Cortland High School. “It could happen anywhere.”
In the 1999-2000 school year, the U.S. Department of Education found that 77 percent of city schools and 70 percent of rural schools reported violent incidents.
These acts include intimidation, bullying, possession of weapons and assault.
By 2003-04, 88 percent of city schools and 75 percent of rural schools were reporting violent incidents.
In Cortland County, the state Department of Education found that in the 2005-06 school year, the most recent year for which statistics are available, there were 26 assaults, 17 instances of weapon possession, 163 instances of intimidation and 185 minor altercations.
“Nationwide and New York state statistics are showing the same disturbing trend,” said U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer. “Since 1992, there have been 21 deaths from violence in New York state schools. We are finding that violence is not confined to any one corner in the state … Students should be more concerned with getting to classes on time, not violence.”
The trend of school violence in rural areas is increasing, according to data collected by the state Department of Education.
In March 2006, a local threat of violence arose at the Homer Intermediate School, which holds grades three through six.
“Kids are kids. There are always fights, but what was unusual about this particular incident in 2006 was that it was a threat of using a weapon,” said Doug Larison, Homer superintendent of schools. “At the time we did a lot to make sure the kids were safe.”
A student contacted the Homer Police Department with information that two sixth-graders discussed bringing guns to the school and using them. Students were encouraged to talk about the incident in their classes and the school was on a lockout.
“We took it seriously, but I don’t think we overreacted,” Larison said.
Timothy Turecek, superintendent of Marathon schools, said the school district has never had to deal with a threat of serious violence, the district has had students and parents periodically say things out of anger because of discipline issues.
“It’s possible anywhere,” Turecek said of a shooting occurring at a local school. “We have dealt with that possibility long enough that I think we have pretty good security measures in place.”
Schumer is pushing a bill to increase federal funds by $50 million annually for local school districts for security equipment, including cameras and metal detectors. The School Safety Enhancements Act also provides money to support partnerships between local police agencies and schools.
The bill will strengthen the Secure Our Schools program, which provides schools with grants for programs to prevent and respond to violence in schools.
In 2006, the Secure Our School program gave $14.8 million in grants to 174 local law enforcement agencies to enhance school safety in 38 states.
The bill has been introduced and passed through the Judiciary Committee, which Schumer sits on.
Although the number of violent school shootings has risen in the United States, School Resource Officer Rob Reyngoudt, a city police officer stationed at the Cortland Junior-Senior High School, said school is still the safest place for a child to be.
“The homicides committed on school grounds and events represent less than 1 percent of all homicides in the United States. So despite the growing report of school violence, school is still the safest place for a kid,” he said. “Should we be concerned? Absolutely. But should parents be afraid to send their kids to school? No. The best thing is to have a plan. Plan for the worst and hope for the best.”
The only school-related murder in Cortland County was on June 6, 1996, when 18-year-old Melissa Marshall was stabbed over five times with a pocketknife by classmate Matthew Covington.
According to court records, Covington told police he killed Marshall because he didn’t like her, had been thinking about killing her two weeks before he actually did it and told friends about his plan two days before the murder.
After a jury trial, Covington was found guilty of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison with no chance of parole.
Marshall and Covington were scheduled to graduate two weeks before the incident.
Covington, now 30, is being held in the Clinton Correctional Facility, a maximum-security level prison in Dannemora, N.Y.




Community comes together to help couple hurt in cycle crash

Staff Reporter

DRYDEN — About 150 people gathered at the Dryden VFW Friday night to raise money for a local couple that nearly five months ago suffered serious injuries from a motorcycle accident.
Seven of Nancy and Keith Yaeger’s friends began organizing the benefit in early September, after the couple, who live on Route 13, was rear ended on their motorcycle on June 22 resulting in Nancy Yaeger losing her right leg, and Keith enduring several compound fractures.
“We were in shock about the accident, the financial situation it put them in afterwards and wanted to help,” said Meg Jastran, who has been friends with the couple for nearly 20 years now. Jastran added that she rode motorcycles with them.
Money from the benefit will go toward the medical expenses for their injuries not covered by their insurance.
Nancy said their health insurance is covering 80 percent of their medical bills, but she does not get coverage for a new leg.
“The biggest expense is from the prosthetics needed. They told me the one I need runs $50,000 and lasts three to five years. There are other expenses in between like parts that wear out, too, but the main cost is the prosthetic leg itself.”
Thus far, the Yaeger’s have raised $4,500, not including Friday’s event. Brenda Tyler, another friend of the family said she alone raised approximately $2,000 for the benefit.
“Emotionally, they are coping wonderfully,” Tyler said. “But they still have a lot of money to come up with.”
The Yaeger’s had been out to dinner with friends on Skaneateles Lake before the accident. When they were driving back to their home, they stopped on Route 13, waiting to turn in their driveway: brake lights flashing and turn signal on.
Nancy said at first, there was no one behind them.
“Then I saw a truck in the side mirror and I said to my husband, ‘It doesn’t look like he is going to slow down,’” she said. “Before we had a chance to do anything, he hit us.”
The two were thrown from the motorcycle. Passing motorists on the road stopped to help the couple.
“The main thing I guess is that I was just worried about being in the middle of the road,” Nancy said. “But someone assured me all the traffic was stopped and help was on the way.”
Nancy and Keith’s passion for riding began before they were married. They have been married for 33 years and have three children.
“Just from other people we knew that had them (motorcycles) and we tried it and fell in love with it,” Nancy Yaeger said. “We would ride it three to four times a week in the nice weather to unwind after work and spend time together. We never took extended trips, it was more local, but we were on it whenever we had the chance and now I don’t think either of us will ever ride again.”
They had the motorcycle about 25 years before the accident and Nancy said safety was always something they thought about.
“We were always very concerned and with seeing accidents on the news we were always extremely cautious. We tended to stay on back roads and flashed our brake lights whenever we stopped to get people’s attention,” she said.



Cortland teacher may be ‘Millionaire’

High school English teacher’s appearance on game show will air in May

Staff Reporter

Cortland High School English teacher Bill Lee was always a “Jeopardy” guy, but this summer he started watching “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” with his wife and in-laws.
“Everyone would look at me, and I kept getting the answers right,” said Lee, 53, of Cortland.
He said his wife, 41-year-old Sandie, encouraged him to audition for the show. He did in September, and at the beginning of October he was accepted to be on the show.
His show was taped Wednesday in New York City, and it is scheduled to air sometime in May. Until then, he is legally bound not to say how he did on the show.
Each year about 300 people become contestants from the more than 30,000 who audition, said Trisha Miller, a publicist for the show.
Lee’s students weren’t surprised he made the final cut.
“He has like a poker face,” said Jen White, a 17-year-old senior in Lee’s seventh-period English class. “If he’s nervous he won’t show it.”
The audition included a 30-question test and an interview with a producer, Lee said. While the questions tested trivia knowledge, the interview had more to do with personality and a potential contestant’s story.
“At the end of the day we try to put people on show people will relate to,” Miller said.
Lee said he would donate a good chunk of any money won toward the senior class, which he’s an advisor for, and toward his son Jake’s first year of college. Jake is a member of the senior class.
Money for the senior class could go toward the cost of the prom or the seniors’ class trip, which some predict will be a day of white water rafting, he said.
Regina Montez, a 17-year-old senior in Lee’s seventh-period English class said she’s very touched by his generosity.
Jake Lee, 17, said he hopes to use any donation from his dad toward tuition at Cornell University, where he’s applying to study architecture.
Lee traveled to New York City with his mother Wednesday to see his father perform on the show.
He said show host Meredith Vieira waved at him. But there were some drawbacks to being in the audience, he said.
“They didn’t give you food or let you go to the bathroom,” he said, noting the taping lasted for about three hours.
Bill Lee said overall he had a great experience auditioning and appearing on the show.