BALLSTON SPA – The Ballston Spa Central School District Board of Education and Superintendent Joseph Dragone discussed the district’s response to a threat made by four students on social media that lead to a lockdown in the Ballston Spa High School and Middle School the previous day during Wednesday’s board meeting.
District administrators became aware of the threat made by a student about a shooting at the high school at approximately 8:15 a.m. after school began Tuesday, and contacted the Saratoga County Sheriff’s Office.
Both the middle and high school were put into lockdown and deputies and investigators from the sheriff’s department responded to the school. District officials uncovered information that another student brought a weapon to school that morning, locating the weapon that was then turned over to the sheriff’s office.
Sheriff’s officials concluded that the weapon was an inoperable blank pistol that looked identical to a real firing pistol.
Following an investigation, officials arrested four boys ranging in age from 13 to 15 from either Milton or Ballston Spa. The 14-year old was charged with a juvenile felony for making a terroristic threat by posting a threatening message online.
The three other boys were charged with unlawful possession of weapons by persons under sixteen. All four boys were referred to the Saratoga County Probation Department.
In an unsolicited message to the Ballston Journal Facebook page from one of the minors involved said “The kids who had the fake gun shouldn’t be in trouble for a stupid reason what’s next u guys are gonna save ppl from a water gun? If they shot it it would be a different story. Ik the people who did it and ik what happened and ik the whole story. U dont. They claimed that shots were fired and that the gun was aimed at ppl.No it wasn’t thank u very much.”
There were more Instagram posts after the arrest although it is not clear if the account is owned by the same person sending the Facebook messages.
Dragone said on Wednesday, “The district will be working with law enforcement and it is our full intention to take this matter to the fullest extent of the law both in terms of what the district can do and what the penal code allows.”
Board of Education Vice President Susan Filburn, who led the Wednesday’s meeting for absent board President Kevin Schaefer, recognized the staff and administrators of the Ballston Spa High School and Middle School, thanking them for their professional work handling of the situation on Tuesday.
“It is unfortunate that it happened, but it was nice to know that the staff was prepared and also had the health and safety of our children first and foremost. I think they deserve recognition,” Filburn said.
Filburn acknowledged the worry of parents and herself under the circumstances, but said she had faith and confidence in the district staff.
“I know that you feel nervous, you feel anxious, you feel scared, and that was me, but I took comfort and faith as I thought of [Principal Kristi Jensen] in my head and I thought of vice principals and I thought of Joe,” Filburn said. “I also heard from parents that said their kids felt safe and they felt safe, so thank you.”
Superintendent Dragone echoed Filburn’s comments, first thanking the local law enforcement officials for their response, direction of resources and management of the situation.
“They are great partners, everyone needs to know that they treat our schools like their home and they treat our kids like they’re their own kids and they always will go to whatever extent it takes to make sure that our kids are safe. It is incredibly reassuring,” Dragone said.
He went on to thank the district staff and the school principals who have been working through the years to develop programs that help students talk about difficult situations, such as the lockdown.
“It’s always hard to talk about, but the reality is these are these are the kinds of things that we face,” he said. “Kids have been more forthcoming and parents have been more forthcoming. We can’t do anything unless we know and we still say if you know something’s not right you have to tell someone.”
Dragone went on to address criticism that has been brought by district parents on social media who questioned the administration’s lack of communication during the lockdown.
According to Dragone, a lockdown signifies the highest level of alert for the school district and is only enacted when a situation poses a potential harm to students and staff. During a lockdown the district’s priority is containing and neutralizing potential threats, while accounting for everyone in the building.
Once a lockdown is lifted, police officers and district administrators move through the building releasing each room individually.
“You’re not going to understand what is going on in real time, because in real time we’re dealing with a threat. We’re dealing with a threat and we’re working with law enforcement to make sure that we’re properly managing the threat to keep everyone safe,” Dragone said.
Dragone said that he stood by every decision made during Tuesday’s lockdown.
“It’s a process and as much as people would like to know about our process, when we’re working to make sure that it’s safe for everyone the reality is that’s the priority. It trumps everything else and when we were ready to have a summary out in collaboration with our partners, we put that together and we make sure that people know the facts as we have them,” Dragone said.
While many parents said on social media they had received emails notifying them of the situation after the lockdown was lifted, some claimed they had not received any communication from the school district.
Following Wednesday’s board meeting, Dragone explained that the district uses the SchoolMessenger Notification System uses information that parents provide when their children first enroll in school. The email notifier has the largest contact database and the potential to reach more parents, quickly. An email was generated at 9:35 a.m. and the situation update was posted on the school district website and tweeted to all who follow the school district accounts.
The notifier is equipped to confirm delivery of a message with a time and date stamp and also records opt-outs or blocks.
The school district asks for a home phone number, up to two cell phone numbers and up to two email addresses when parents enroll their children, this contact information is attached to each student’s permanent record and is used to contact parents through the emergency notification system.
The system uses this information to contact parents by robocall, text message or email when necessary. If a parent needs to update their contact information they may do so online through the SchoolMessenger Info Center App or by contacting their child’s school office.
Community Relations Coordinator, Stuart Williams said, “…text is an opt in system so reaches fewer. Text is limited by usual characters. We went with the most efficient modes of communication at that point in time,” when asked about the decision making process for parent notification.
“If you want to change it you can change it, otherwise it stays with what you registered with,” Dragone said. “The notifier system is opt out, so you get it unless you tell us not to send it to you.”
Despite the large discussion on social media, only two parents addressed the situation during Wednesday’s public comment period, both thanking the district for their response on Tuesday.
District mother Maria Bashford shared that her son was home sick on Tuesday, but noted her nervousness at sending him back to school following the situation. While Bashford said that she was comfortable with the district’s communication timeline during the lockdown, she asked how staff members intended to address the events.
“Is there anything that you’re going to do for the kids now that they’re back in school? I asked my son today, did you get taken into maybe an auditorium by grade and just talk about what happened, and why it happened, and why we did the things we did, and how do you guys feel,” she asked.
“Does anybody need grief counseling? I know nothing physically happened yesterday, but there are kids who went home last night and cried, and teachers that went home last night and cried after work, did we talk to these kids and say, if anybody feels any type of way please step forward,” Bashford added.
The Board of Education and district officials did not respond to Bashford’s question during Wednesday’s meeting, but Filburn said that an administrator would get in touch with her.