ITHACA, N.Y.—A relatively uneventful Ithaca City School District Board of Education meeting Tuesday was punctuated by board members pushing back on comments made by local law enforcement figures regarding the district’s response to a shooting threat in October.
There was some anticipation that the board may take the opportunity at the meeting to offer some feedback on the report recently compiled and released by the Ithaca Teachers Association about teacher morale and retention as resignations pile up throughout the district. There was also a meeting held earlier this week with district officials regarding the rampant turnover at Cayuga Heights Elementary School.
But while those topics went unaddressed, the discussion of the school district’s shooting threat response protocols was prompted during the time allotted for students to give feedback to the board directly. One of the student representatives pushed for an answer from the district regarding its shooting threats response policy, which has been scrutinized since the incident in late October in which a student on a Friday bus trip threatened to kill several students, the bus driver and the bus aide the following Monday.
While the bus workers reported the threat to district officials, law enforcement wasn’t notified until a parent of one of the students on the bus at the time of the threat called police the next day when their son told them of the incident.
Since The Ithaca Voice’s reported about that situation, several ICSD officials have now been subpoenaed to appear in court on January 18 to provide testimony in relation to the case, including Superintendent Dr. Luvelle Brown.
The request yielded two responses from board members Moira Lang and Eldred Harris. Both took umbrage to Tompkins County Sheriff Derek Osborne’s and Tompkins County District Attorney Matt Van Houten’s comments to The Ithaca Voice on the matter. Van Houten, specifically, said that there was “no excuse for the school district not to immediately alert law enforcement.” Lang called the comments “surprising” and said it was misguided to “make it so black and white,” seeming to argue that circumstances could call for a smaller reaction.
“This is being considered in great nuance, and detail and thoughtfulness in relation to both the safety plan, still in draft form, and the code of conduct, which is still in draft form,” Lang said. “I just want to stress that it is not black and white. The idea that somebody, let alone a chief law enforcement officer would suggest that it’s as black and white as ‘no excuse’ for not telling the police is quite surprising to me.”
Harris went a bit further, directing his ire more toward Osborne. Osborne had said that, after reviewing the reports, the report of the threat clearly should have been passed along to law enforcement.
“The impression that I took away from the comments was [they meant] this [ICSD] executive team has no idea about what’s happening, no idea about which situations represent [real] threats […] The insinuation wasn’t appreciated,” Harris said, trailing off. “We have whole faith that our executive team understands an issue and can make those decisions because they have those relationships with families and with the children in this district. The insinuation that somehow the nine of us, as a team, don’t care about the safety of the students and families of this district — that was reprehensible. I will probably have the chance to see the sheriff at some point, and I’ll say that to him directly.”
Harris insisted that since the district has a more substantial relationship with Ithaca Police Department, and since eight of the district’s 12 schools fall in IPD’s jurisdiction instead of the Tompkins County Sheriff’s Office, officials would be more likely to work through a situation such as a school shooting threat with IPD than TCSO. Four schools, or a third of the district, fall within TCSO jurisdiction according to Osborne: Caroline, Dewitt, Boynton and Enfield schools.
“We have a decades-long relationship with an agency with which we interact on a fairly frequent basis, which is the Ithaca Police Department,” Harris said. “We don’t have as significant a relationship with the sheriff’s department, simply because a very small portion of this district lies within that territory.”