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Niagara Falls, Lancaster schools fall short in emergency planning, audit shows

The Lancaster and Niagara Falls school districts both fell short on planning for emergency situations, according to an audit released today by the State Comptroller’s Office.

The comptroller urged both districts to augment their safety plan documentation process. In addition, Niagara Falls was told to identify a chief emergency officer.

“Our plans and policies are sound. I am the chief emergency officer," said Mark Laurrie, Niagara Falls' superintendent. “I don’t want the public to think that our schools are not safe; they are. We need to improve our paperwork.”

Lancaster Superintendent Michael J. Vallely pointed to significant upgrades by his district in building safety.

"Since 2013, the district spent millions of dollars on physical safety enhancements and equipment, implemented extensive safety plans and procedures including routine training and drills, and hired a national expert to assess our safety preparedness and protocols throughout all district schools," said Vallely.

A total of 6,980 students are enrolled in the Niagara Falls City School District, spread across 12 buildings with 1,020 staff members. The Lancaster Central School District has 5,810 students attending seven schools with 1,452 staff members.

The Safe Schools Against Violence in Education (SAVE) Act was enacted in 2000 and required schools to develop a comprehensive district-wide safety plan that outlines policies on crisis intervention and emergency response and management. The act was established after the mass shooting on April 20, 1999 at Columbine High School in Colorado, where 13 people were killed and 21 wounded by gunshots.

The comptroller's staff randomly selected 17 school districts and two charter schools for the audit. Auditors found none of the schools met the minimum planning or training requirements of the State Education Department. Two schools, which were not identified, did not have district-wide safety plans, according to the audit.

The audit monitors compliance with requirements of the SAVE Act, which was updated in 2016 when the state amended the scope of school emergency response planning required.

These changes included reducing the required number of annual fire drills as well as adding a new requirement that schools conduct four annual lock-down drills. The detained response to emergency situations — identifying evacuation routes, shelter sites and the procedure required to address medical needs, transportation and the emergency notification of parents and guards — were included in the 2016 amendment.

The statute was also amended to require each district develop procedures for contacting parents or guardians in the event of an implied or direct threat of violence by students against themselves — including the threat of suicide.

Cited districts are required to adopt revised emergency plans by Sept. 1.

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