WATERTOWN — Following a cyber attack in late July, the first day of school for the Watertown City School District went glitch-free.
After Thursday, the last first day of school this week, all north country schools are open and in session. Ready for their first day, students wearing everything from colorful, sparkly backpacks to light-up shoes and T-shirts with funny sayings on them, lined up outside Sherman Elementary School with their parents, the eager young faces both new and returning a welcome sight at the school.
Standing outside to greet new students and parents, as well as those who were returning, Sherman principal Terry Gonseth and school custodian Mike Grandjean were joined Thursday morning by district Superintendent Patricia LaBarr.
A former teacher, this year marks Mrs. LaBarr’s third year as superintendent for Watertown. In this relatively short amount of time, along with being the district’s first female superintendent, Mrs. LaBarr and the district have been through their fair share of not-so-great firsts and setbacks.
This year alone the district has dealt with the loss of four students to a devastating fire in February, a classroom slave auction from which the district is still recovering, and most recently a cyber attack consisting of a complete destruction of the district’s servers. According to Mrs. LaBarr, it could have been much worse than just the servers; nothing else was impacted, so no data was stolen and nothing else was lost.
“It’s kind of a learning curve when you think you have everything fully restored and recovered and you find something you didn’t use or test, so it’s just a lot of little things, but we’ll get through it; we’ll get through all of it,” Mrs. LaBarr said. “We are almost back to complete recovery.”
Shortly after the cyber breach, Syracuse City School District Superintendent Jaime Alicea assisted Mrs. LaBarr during that trying time by offering her a checklist of things to do following the event. Mr. Alicea was uniquely qualified for this as his district had been hit only weeks before.
“We were literally shut off from the world, and that’s when we realized the world isn’t just a click away,” Mrs. LaBarr said. “It was a good learning experience. It just gave us a minute to step back and assess what happened and what we can do to be better in the future, and that’s where we’re at right now.”
According to Mrs. LaBarr, the district had a company called Anjolen come and do cybersecurity training for the staff before the first day of school, and every staff member was required to take a 45-minute online course called ‘Cyber Security 101.’ Unfortunately, even with new cybersecurity measures, there is no guarantee that the district will not be targeted again. With breaches occurring across the country, and schools always a potential target, the future remains uncertain.
While dealing with the breach, the district was able to strengthen a lot of community partnerships with institutions like Jefferson Community College, Flower Memorial Library and the Northern New York Community Foundation, according to Mrs. LaBarr. When Mrs. LaBarr called JCC President Ty Stone on a Friday night telling her she had professional development scheduled for three days the following week requiring a lot of online components, and saying she’d have to cancel unless she could secure rooms, President Stone provided her with the rooms she needed free of charge and told her she and JCC would give her everything she needed.
At Sherman Elementary, the first day was full of smiles, hugs, and high-fives, the young students eager to start the year, unaware of what had occurred just over a month ago. One little girl named Addison Dawley, 5, with her long hair tied up in two ponytails, a black bow on each, was dressed in a special outfit for her first day of kindergarten. Her mother, Janessa Richmond, is a first-grade teacher at the school. Ms. Richmond shared that Addison woke up at 2:30 a.m. Thursday, excited for her first day and asking her mother if it was time to go yet.
Before school started, grandparents Ted and Joann Kolb posed with first-grade twins Matteo and Mia Kolb in front of a tree outside the school. Both children were very excited for their first day back and the chance to see friends.
As a child left his bus in the drop-off zone, Mr. Gonseth helped him put his backpack on, hugged kids that came up to him, and high-fived others, knowing the names of most, if not all, of the returning students. Mrs. LaBarr said he created this welcoming and cheerful atmosphere; it wasn’t really there at the school before.
“We just have the best team ever in Watertown,” Mrs. LaBarr said. “We call it Team Awesome.”
According to Mrs. LaBarr, along with a cybersecurity mind-set, a focus of this year will be diversity and inclusion.
“We’re working on making the Watertown City School District a place where every student, staff member and community member feels comfortable,” she said.
Technology is working in Potsdam Central School District’s favor in keeping everyone comfortable and secure, as the “Say Something Anonymous Reporting System” app is being launched this school year.
“We wanted to take a more proactive approach and recognize that we need the entire school community,including students and parents, to accept a shared responsibility for keeping our school safe,” said Potsdam Superintendent Joann Chambers.
The mobile app will allow students, staff, parents and others to offer anonymous tips to a 24-hour call center when they have concerns about people who may be a threat to themselves or others.
Tips can be reported anonymously to the program’s 24/7 crisis center or a website.
Last school year, Mike Neaton, the school’s resource officer, started working on implementing the Say Something Anonymous Report app, which is provided at no cost through the Sandy Hook Promise, a nationwide not-for-profit organization created after the 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.
“We began researching the app as we began the process of establishing a Behavioral Threat Assessment Team, an initiative also led by Officer Neaton,” Ms. Chambers said.
All tips go to a call center staffed with trained professionals who screen the tips.
If a “Life-Safety” tip is received, the local police department, school superintendent and school resource officer are immediately called. Other tips are forwarded to the district between the hours of 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. so the building principal and counselors can follow-up.
The program teaches students, teachers, and administrators how to recognize warning signs and signals, especially what to look for in texts, videos and photos shared on social media. It advises users to say something to a trusted adult or use its anonymous reporting system.
At the high school, a Students Against Violence Everywhere Club (SAVE) was created and the middle school plans to start one this year.
“Our students often are aware of the problems their peers are facing, so we must empower them to know the danger signs and give them the tools to help each other with the assistance of trained and caring adults,” Ms. Chamber said.
In a message to parents, Ms. Chambers said the app and other related prevention programs have helped stop multiple school shootings, suicides and gun threats. They’ve also reduced bullying and cyber bullying, intervened on cutting and drug use, racial conflicts and other violent and victimization acts.
Students at the St. Regis Falls Central School resorted to low-tech measures to welcome students through its doors. Teachers hope students will read messages filled with inspiration as they walk through the school doors. It is all part of an event called “Chalk the Walk.”
This is the first year the school has done something like this. On Wednesday afternoon, teachers and parents wrote messages in chalk on the school’s walkway, spreading words of encouragement and support to the students. Students and educators say chalk on the walk is more than just writing down words, but a way to make students feel welcome and loved.
“I am thinking it will uplift them and start everybody off on a positive note, knowing that the parents care and that they are thinking of their children as they come to school and start off on a new adventure,” said Elementary Principal Kate Dwyer.
Secondary Principal Corey Flynn also took part in the event. His message to the students was to have fun. Just like many of the students, he, too, is excited for the first day of school.
“This is my seventeenth first day of school and every one of them, I am always nervous and excited,” Flynn said. “It’s a great mix between the two, and I am sure many of the students are as well, and we are looking forward to having the buzz back in the building and our students back in school.”
Johnson Newspaper Corp. staff writer Brendan McDonough contributed to this report