A Reflection on What We’ve Been Through: An Interview With Dr. Steven Siciliano





          This article contains excerpts from an interview with Dr. Siciliano, but not the entire interview. While effort was made to present the conversation in its full context, to maintain brevity, the entire interview could not be included. For clarity, ellipses have been inserted to denote when portions of the interview are omitted within a section. 


          For many of us, the last few months have been quite trying. It may seem like a long time ago, but the threats we faced together are something we should not be so quick to forget (although I’m not sure we could). There are many things to be learned from our experience. It is my goal in this article to provide a retrospective on what we’ve experienced, what we’ve felt and how to go forward. Please note that I have not attempted to recount all the factual details of the events that transpired or all of the information (accurate or not) that was disseminated in the aftermath of those events, as part of the difficulty of what we experienced is precisely the varying reach of both. Instead, I think each of us will read this through the lens of what we uniquely experienced and understood at the time. As part of this article, I sat down with and interviewed our principal, Dr. Steven T. Siciliano, to get his perspective on these events. 


Evaluation of the Threats 

          It seemed as though after the first threat was reported, a cacophony of rumors and concerns spread through the school. Amid this chaos, students began to question what was real and what wasn’t. Many described the situation as an endless game of telephone, taking reality and grinding it down to something unrecognizable by the time the students heard about it. Students and parents alike had many questions and concerns about what was happening. Many students described to me the questions they wanted answers to, including whether the police were involved, why the school hadn’t closed and the steps being taken to keep us all safe. In my interview with Dr. Siciliano, I decided to ask him these questions and others relevant to the threats. 


GV: “So those are the only two [threats] the school was directly made aware of?” 

Dr. Siciliano: “Those are the ones we were directly made aware of and the police quickly discounted that there was any danger.” 

GV: “So, they [the threats] were not credible, right?” 

Dr. Siciliano: “The police, yes. Police investigation showed they were not credible.” 

GV: “A lot of students that I talked to were kind of asking, you know, what the thought process was behind, you know, a lot of them thought the school should close for that [the threats]. What’s your thought on that?” 

Dr. Siciliano: “Well, you know, again, we worked very closely with the police. And so, when these things come to my attention, I’m in conversation with the superintendent and then, we really trust the police to do their share and their part in this. And once they report to us that they don’t see any, any threat, not credible. No reason for school to close.” 


Dr. Siciliano: “I think that’s always a general thought is that, you know, closing the school is a drastic, almost emergency stuff…So, if you do that in the absence of a real emergency, you are really, really setting up the students for great anxiety…That’s not going to help anyone.” 

          That excerpt of my interview with Dr. Siciliano represents his general message about the school’s attitude towards threats. He believes we should closely work with law enforcement and seriously consider the consequences of the actions we take to counter the threats. Whether these answers feel right to you, I am not here to say. That is for you to decide based on the information provided in the interview.


Communication of the Events 

          Another one of the questions asked by students and parents alike was why there wasn’t more communication to the community about what was happening? Many were confused and concerned about the threats and wanted to know more about what was being done. To address these concerns, I asked Dr. Siciliano a few questions on that subject. 

GV: “So, what are the legal requirements as to how much you can communicate to the students, staff, parents about the threats made?” 

Dr. Siciliano: “Well, there’s something called FERPA and that really prohibits us from talking about anything that breaks student confidentiality that can identify a student, so that’s where we always have to be very careful of. It’s also the culture that we want to have in this district is that we recognize that people can make mistakes… And we realize that some mistakes are worse than others. That’s why we have a code of conduct, we have disciplinary procedures that we go through. But it’s also a case where there are times when students are going to make mistakes and we need to welcome them back. They, you know, consequences have been assigned. Hopefully some counseling pieces have been in there. Students in question reflect as to what’s happened and so they were able to rejoin us as part of the community.” 

GV: “Because, what I wanted to touch on also was the first email. The first email, I think, about the, the incident that occurred over the weekend, didn’t really include much information about the threat itself…what I wanted to ask you was, is there a legal requirement that the specifics of the threat can’t be discussed? Or is it more that nothing can be discussed that would identify the student? That seems to be my understanding of it.” 

Dr. Siciliano: “Yeah, a lot of it is that- so the student is not identified. I think, in this particular case, the, students may have been known to others. So, I think that’s something that we also have to weigh very carefully… And at the same time, it’s like we recognize people want to know what we’re always, you know, thinking through. Okay. What is the most important thing is that people recognize that we’re aware that there is something we need to investigate. We need to involve police and ultimately it’s safe and we can, we can continue running school.” 


GV: “I would say what I’ve heard from a lot of people is there was confusion why there wasn’t more direct communication to students because parents received…I know a lot of people whose parents either didn’t get the emails or didn’t forward them to students. Is there a reason that communication isn’t sent out to the students’ emails?” 

Dr. Siciliano: “I think that had just been kind of a history. It’s, I think Schoology now kind of puts this in a new place that maybe that’s something we have to consider. But the fact also remains is that when we’re dealing with student from 9th grade to 12th grade, there may be individuals that maybe this is not a good thing for that to happen, and we have to rely on parents to speak with their kids…But in years past, all we had was ConnectEd and so it always just went to the parents.” 

GV: “So, you’d be open to the idea of maybe some communication direct to students?” 

Dr. Siciliano: “Yeah. I think we’re appropriate in how do we, you know, tell the message appropriately. So like everything else is to reassure you that those who are responsible for your safety are on top of what’s happened.” 

          With communication being such an important part of the events we experienced, I felt it was appropriate to include the above sections of the interview. It is my hope that it has shed light on Dr. Siciliano’s thought processes and decisions. Again, whether that answers the questions you have is something every person will need to decide for themselves. 


Security Measures in Place 

          As a result of the threats, the school’s security policies came under greater scrutiny as parents and students looked at the systems in place to protect students. Many of the common questions centered around our school not having a Student Resource Officer (SRO) on staff, however this issue was solved at the beginning of February with the hiring of a new SRO. Besides questions about having an SRO, many asked why we only had one security guard and about the measures being taken to control who and what is able to make it into the building. I asked Dr. Siciliano a number of questions on this subject to better understand what was being done. 


GV: “I think for people to feel safe, they have to see the systems that they’re supposed to have faith in working and, you know, we had the counselors come into our English classes the other day and I observed in my class, there was a lot of challenging to what was being said. Specifically, you know, I had a friend of mine who said they had come in the building with a large group of people and hadn’t been ID’d. And the question was, how are we to have faith in a system that maybe, we’ve observed isn’t working well…where it might only take one mistake to cause a problem.” 

Dr. Siciliano: “I think it’s a fair critique. I think schools all over are dealing with the same things. We want to have an open culture. We want to have a place where, where students feel comfortable coming to. We believe that has tremendous value. There are, you know, we know that there are school systems that run metal detectors. It’s a very different culture. And so, I think the, the thinking has always been to how do we maintain the best of what John Jay has always had and not having students walk around in an environment where they feel like they were in a police state. I think that’s something that would be very disconcerting to the moment in time.” 

GV: “So that’s the logic behind not having, you know, metal detectors and screening is to not cause a culture issue?” 

Dr. Siciliano: “We think, and again, just based on the track record. We are a very safe building. We’re always concerned and we’re training for emergency events. We do have a school crisis team that meets monthly. We do a lot of our training and a lot of our security protocols are vetted through police, vetted through our security experts, through BOCES… Even after the Parkland shooting in Florida in 2018, about a year later or maybe less than a year later, I reached out to my counterpart in Florida. To listen to and tell me what you learned as a result of that experience. And, I was glad to hear that much of what they do, we do…In terms of the drills, in terms of the ways that we approach security. We, we’re not an outlier in any sense.” 

GV: “There’s an interesting principle and I know it’s actually how we do airport security, it’s the idea of security theater, right? Where, you know, there’s metal detectors…We have all these measures but in practice it’s been found that they’re really not effective and so is that kind of the school’s thought in not having all these robust securities measures…would probably not really stop much and would cause more of a psychological problem.” 

Dr. Siciliano: “Well, I think ours- all of our systems, they’re designed to buy us time so students know what to do in the event of an emergency. And I think we found that again, as horrific as Michigan was, their protocols, I think, also helped. 

[…] But we also have some advantages in that we have a local police department that is- can get here very quickly, if necessary. We have state police that get here less than 10 minutes. They have walked our buildings. They are very invested in knowing the layout of the high school. So, if they were ever to respond, they could…And it’s also important to know is that school shootings as horrific as they are, they’re rare, they’re rare. So, do you want to give up your culture for something that is so rare. But do you have the mechanisms in place that you could respond if you had to? And so I think we walk that balance pretty well. Are we perfect? No. Did-can we take feedback? Yes.” 

GV: “One of the things I wanted to touch on that you had mentioned, is the idea of drills, we do lockdown drills, right? We have lockdowns, lockouts. Is there a reason why we don’t have drills for more specific situations? For instance, an active shooting drill? Is there a reason we don’t have those?” 

Dr. Siciliano: “They are really hard to do. I’m not aware of any school district that has really done that with a student body in attendance. I’m not aware of any students that had that- any schools that have done that. I don’t think it has been recommended by any of our people that inform our practices…And to act in the absence of that guidance, I think risks traumatizing kids.” 

          Dr. Siciliano certainly provided very detailed answers to my questions about security, something I hope will help students, parents, staff and those in the community to better understand what exactly we rely on to keep us safe. As I’ve said before, your interpretation of these questions is something I will leave to you. I do not view my role as one where I should provide an interpretation, merely to present the information for you to make your own conclusions. 


The Student Body’s Concerns & Anxiety 

          After counselors came into English classes and talked to students about the threats, it became clear that a common message was being delivered which students were confused about. The counselors were heavily stressing the importance of welcoming back the students who made the threats. Many students I spoke to felt this was not the focus they had expected, instead wishing counselors had focused on helping students that had experienced the threats with the anxiety they were struggling with. I asked Dr. Siciliano for his opinion. 


GV: “What would you say is the reason students should be supportive of them [the student(s) who made the threats] re-entering?” 

Dr. Siciliano: “Well, I think a couple of things is the one that without anybody really knowing the facts, the depth of them, what really happened, except for the students, their families, and the administration, and the police, others are not really in a position to make that judgement because they don’t know. It’s also part of our protocols is that whoever we think a student needs to meet with and talk with that gives us the confidence that anybody can return to our building, we do that. And you know, there are also some other things I’ve told that supports that we try to put in place to make sure that anybody returning from a suspension would be able to do that and be able to pick up with their studies.” 

GV: “So, the administration’s goal and the school’s goal…is for people that have made these threats and in the future, for people that do things like this, the goal is to get them the help they need and get them back in the building?” 

Dr. Siciliano: “The goal is always to try- again, safety is first, so if we believe that a student should not be here, they will not be here…and I think that’s first and foremost that everybody should know. So, once we’ve determined that that can happen, then we put supports in place.” 




          The final part of this story is about one of the issues heard most often throughout the building in the days after the threats, how the student(s) who made the threats would be punished for their actions. Many assumed it would be an automatic expulsion, others questioned whether it would only be a suspension. Students did not have a clear understanding of how the school determines punishments appropriate for a specific situation. For that reason, I asked Dr. Siciliano to explain how the disciplinary system works. 


GV: “But generally, like what avenues are open to the school in terms of disciplinary action, for something like this?” 

Dr. Siciliano: “In New York State, the most that a principal can suspend any student is five days. And so, if a longer suspension is being contemplated that has to go to what’s called the superintendent’s hearing and then in a superintendent’s hearing, there is a officer that is there as a hearing officer who will hear the testimony of both the school district and the student. There’s the right for parents at that point to call witnesses as much as-. It’s a school proceeding. It’s not a legal proceeding per se. But then after that is done and the facts so are determined, then the hearing officer will make a recommendation to the superintendent as to whether or not more suspension is warranted.” 

GV: “So, it’s not a que-, it’s not in your authority, essential is what you’re saying right? Anything above five days goes to-“ 

Dr. Siciliano: “Right. An expulsion is a severe-…the most severe penalty that can be applied to any student and that comes from a superintendent.” 

GV: “So that punishment would be from the hearing, right?” 

Dr. Siciliano: “That will come about as a hearing. The- a principal has to bring that matter to a superintendent in order for that to happen…and at my level, it’s understanding what are the facts to see if suspension is warranted. If so, how long? What have- what has the district done in previous cases over time? So, there’s a matter of consistency that you maintain.” 


          That concludes my interview with Dr. Siciliano. From all the questions I have asked and all the answers he provided, I hope that a better understanding of what happened can be gained. That is, after all, the reason why this article was written. Not to convince anyone to take any side, but to allow everyone to better understand what we went through, why we went through it and how we can become better as a result of it.