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Ward Melville High School. File photo by Greg Catalano

Three Village school district has officially made a decision on whether or not to allow students to participate in a walkout.

Ward Melville Principal Alan Baum informed student organizers March 9 the district could not allow students to walk out March 14, according to Bennett Owens, one of the organizers. Parents were notified by the district in a letter later that day.

Students were planning to participate in the walkout held in conjunction with events across the nation honoring the 17 victims of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting, and to call for stricter gun control laws. Parents and students were told it was a joint decision by the board of education, principal and district’s lawyer to not encourage the walkout. Owens said the main concern cited at the March 9 meeting with the principal was the district feeling it couldn’t keep the students safe during the walkout.

“My whole thing is I’m not going to not do what I believe in out of fear of someone being violent, because that’s really why we’re protesting,” Owens said, adding that he plans to walkout regardless of the district’s decision. “We’re protesting the fact that we’re not safe in school.”

At the end of the school day March 9, the school district released a letter from Superintendent Cheryl Pedisich and board of education President William Connors. Various discussions were held with students and staff to find the best ways to students participate in what has been called the #Enough movement, according to the letter.

“As a result of these discussions and with the guidance of our legal counsel, our district will not be encouraging or condoning a walkout involving students exiting the building or leaving campus,” the letter read. “We feel that this type of demonstration would not only disrupt the educational program but would severely compromise our mission to ensure building security and student safety.”

In the letter, the district also informed parents that any student who leaves the building without authorization will be asked to return to class. Parents will be contacted if their children disregard the direction, and students who are disrespectful or disorderly will be subjected to the district’s code of conduct.

As an alternate to a walkout, the district is offering voluntary activities March 14 for high school and junior high school students, according to the letter from Pedisich and Connors. There will be a moment of silence at the high school and both junior high schools. A forum moderated by instructional staff and supervised by administrators will be held in the Ward Melville auditorium for interested students to discuss issues connected to the #Enough movement. R. C. Murphy Junior High School students will have the opportunity to write letters to Marjory Stoneman Douglas students, and P.J. Gelinas junior high schoolers can gather in the gymnasium during fourth period to hear student government leaders read memoriam notes and listen to a brief music interlude.

“It is our hope that our planned activities will afford our students the opportunity to pay respects, offer reflection and appropriately respond to honor the victims of the tragedy,” the letter read.

The decision comes a week after students interested in participating in a walkout sat with Baum to discuss their plans. Both Owens and fellow organizers were optimistic, saying the principal was receptive to their ideas; suggested changing walking out of the main entrance to the gym entrance, feeling it would be safer; and said participants would not receive disciplinary action.

Owens said he was disappointed with the district’s final decision.

“I just think a walkout at 10 a.m. when schools nationally are doing it — this was the most impactful way to get our message across,” Owens said.

Owens said he and other organizers plan to continue promoting the event on the Instagram account wmhs_walkout, but will advise fellow students they may face repercussions. Planning to attend Binghamton University in the fall, Owens said he’s not worried about any disciplinary actions that may follow the peaceful walkout after seeing a post on the college’s Instagram account, binghamtonu. The university posted: “Binghamton University will not change admissions decisions for students who are involved in peaceful protests addressing gun violence.”

Stony Brook University followed a similar policy, and posted a message to its Facebook page Feb. 26. “We have received inquiries from prospective and admitted students asking us if their admissions application will be negatively viewed if they have protested,” the statement read. “At Stony Brook University, a disciplinary action associated with meaningful, peaceful participation in a protest will not negatively impact an admissions decision. We would not view it as inappropriate or lacking integrity on its face. We view every disciplinary action on a case-by-case basis.”

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There is no denying the Florida school shooting has reignited a national discussion on appropriate firearm regulations and mental health issues. Amid the uproar, students are organizing in attempt to make their voices heard — and we firmly believe they deserve to be at the forefront of this conversation.

The Women’s March Youth EMPOWER has put out the call for students, teachers, school administrators and parents to participate in a national school walkout Wednesday, March 14, at 10 a.m. The event calls for students to walk outside of their school building for 17 minutes, one minute for each of victims killed in Parkland, in a unified effort to show students demand action from Congress in passing federal gun regulations.

Commack resident Paul Guttenberg, whose niece Jaime was killed in the Parkland shooting, voiced support for the student walkout.

“It keeps the issue of how high school students feel about gun violence in the news, and will also send the message that our children’s voices do count,” he said. “And the tone-deaf GOP politicians in Congress will be forced to listen to how they feel.”

The reaction of Long Island’s school districts to the walkout wildly varies and, in some cases, is disappointing. We applaud Ward Melville High School Principal Alan Baum for sitting down with student organizers in his district to discuss plans and ensure safety.

If the point of education is to prepare our children for life, and to become civic-minded adults, Baum’s action should serve as an example for other districts.

Brenden Cusack, principal at Huntington High School, has used the walkout as an opportunity to arrange a March 13 forum where students, teachers and the community can engage in respectful dialogue on mass shootings.

It is disappointing that other districts like Rocky Point have issued warnings that administrative action will be taken in response to any student participating in the walkout. The event is an effort to cry out for attention, where the district’s planned moment of silence is just that, silence, and a letter-writing campaign is too easily ignored. This decision by school administrators strangles students’ voices, making someone think twice before expressing an opinion.

Worse are those school officials who have decided to bury their heads in the sand and not publicly address the walkout. Elwood and Harborfields have not yet issued public statements regarding how their districts will handle the event. This leaves both students and parents with numerous unanswered questions. With a little less than a week until walkout day, we strongly encourage school officials to reconsider an open and honest dialogue.

The first step to solving a problem starts with discussion of the issues. Students have every right to be heard, for it’s their safety at risk.

Miller Place and Rocky Point will host indoor forums, Shoreham-Wading River is undecided

Mount Sinai High School. File photo by Kevin Redding

By Kevin Redding

In the aftermath of the most recent mass shooting, students across the nation are planning to rise up and walk out — a movement that is being handled very differently across local school districts.

On March 14, exactly one month after gun violence at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, left 17 students and faculty members dead, students plan to walk out of their schools for 17 minutes starting at 10 a.m. — both in honor of the Parkland victims and as a call for legislative action to help put an end to deadly shootings. The nationwide protest, the seeds of which have spread across social media with the hashtag #ENOUGH, was launched by the activist group Women’s March Youth EMPOWER, whose members are demanding Congress do more than “tweet thoughts and prayers in response to gun violence” and that “students and staff have the right to teach in an environment free from the worry of being gunned down in their classrooms,” according to the group’s website.

The movement was initiated by Parkland survivors, whose outcry against guns following the shooting has reverberated throughout each and every state. An impassioned speech given by senior Emma González Feb. 17 went viral by stating that she and her fellow classmates would change the law in the country so that her high school would be the location of America’s last mass shooting.

“I told my kids I do not want them participating. There are other ways to learn, protect and voice your opinions.”

— Keri Rooney

Across the North Shore, school districts have begun addressing how they will handle the localized version of the movement, with Miller Place and Rocky Point firmly opposed to letting their students leave the building — echoing widely shared concerns over safety. Mount Sinai is on board with letting students participate in the national movement, while Shoreham-Wading River is still weighing the situation.

Miller Place

During a board of education meeting Feb. 28, where Superintendent Marianne Cartisano outlined for parents the district’s enhanced security measures, including the newly assigned four armed guards for its four buildings, she addressed the walkout.

“We are looking to see how we’re going to manage it here to allow students to have a voice, but I can tell you right now — there is no way that I’m going to have students walk outside at 10 o’clock in the morning,” Cartisano said to applause in the room. “The reason is that if everybody knows that children are walking outside at 10 o’clock in the morning, then who are the obvious victims? And that may or may not happen in our nation — and I pray every night that it doesn’t — but what I can tell you is that’s not going to happen here.”

She explained to residents that she and other administrators want students to have a voice, but in a way that doesn’t create a health and safety issue, or turn into “a political movement.”

“Our students’ voices do have to be heard about ending school violence and returning schools to the safe havens that they once were,” the superintendent said. “We’re spending a tremendous amount of time talking about student demonstrations and how we can provide students with a voice against school violence while also recognizing those who have lost their lives.”

She said students will be able to participate in a safer alternative inside the building March 14. Senior Jake Angelo, student representative on the board, later suggested the indoor event could involve an anti-bullying sentiment and a flower sale to raise money for those in Parkland.

Students in Miller Place will host in-school reflections during the national walkout March 14. Photo by Kevin Redding

Amanda Cohen-Stein, a parent in the district, said later in a community Facebook post that while she originally supported the walkout, she changed her mind following Cartisano’s comments.

“It is best they not leave school grounds,” Cohen-Stein said.

Keri Rooney, a Sound Beach resident with ties to Miller Place, said she didn’t feel comfortable about the walkout.

“I told my kids I do not want them participating,” Rooney said. “There are other ways to learn, protect and voice your opinions. Walking out of school is not the answer and leaves them as an easy target.”

Rocky Point

Michael Ring, superintendent of the Rocky Point district, recently sent a letter to parents in which he said that organized, student-run walkouts “are not a viable option for our schools,” and that any student who chooses to participate in the movement via exiting the high school, will be “subject to administrative action.” He did not specify what the specific consequence would be.

“No Rocky Point student will be permitted to leave the premises as part of any of these upcoming events or otherwise, without appropriate permission, whether on March 14 or at any time during school hours throughout the school year,” Ring wrote. “Any student found to have left school without appropriate permission on any school day during the year will be subject to administrative action in accordance with the district’s code of conduct.”

He made it clear that this decision was based on heightened attention to school safety and security, and that, despite not being allowed to leave the grounds, students wishing to participate in the movement March 14 can do so through districtwide activities planned for the day by administration and staff.

“Many in our schools have expressed interest in engaging in activities aimed at not only honoring the lives lost in this national tragedy, but also giving voice to the hope that a similar event does not happen again,” Ring said.

“No Rocky Point student will be permitted to leave the premises.”

—Michael Ring

For high school students, these include a moment of silence and the viewing of a tribute to the 17 lives lost in Parkland; a discussion led by teachers encouraging students to participate in 17 acts of kindness during the day in order to “increase positive interactions within the school community”; and opportunities
during social studies classes to voice their opinions on ways to better enhance safety and security in the school; and write letters either to elected officials or the survivors and family members of victims in Parkland.

Although this is considered a high school initiative, Ring said that there will be similar activities, including the letter writing, in the middle school and a moment of silence and kindness-geared activities in both Frank J. Carasiti Elementary School and Joseph A. Edgar Intermediate School.

Mount Sinai

After Principal Robert Grable met with 20 members of the student government last Friday to gauge student’s perspectives on the walkout, it was decided — in correspondence with Superintendent Gordon Brosdal and the board of education — that Mount Sinai students who wish to participate can do so March 14.

The students will stand outside on the high school’s athletic field for 17 minutes, school officials said, during which time the campus is expected to be shut down with tightened security by the entrances on the North Country Road and 25A sides of the property, which will be closed and locked.

Grable said in speaking with student leaders he made it clear that he wanted the walkout to be structured, safe and well supervised.

“I didn’t want to cut them off, so if there was a way to do this safely and securely, I was certainly willing to do that.”

— Rob Grable

“It’s a very hot topic right now,” Grable said. “I think everybody is emotional about it, including the student body, and I didn’t want to cut them off, so if there was a way to do this safely and securely, I was certainly willing to do that. I don’t think it will be that major of a distraction and it will accommodate both parties — the administration as well as the students who wish to demonstrate their support of this initiative.”

Student Council President Joe Kelly, a senior, said he and his peers believe the event should be focused on reflection.

“I talked to a lot of students and we think the walkout should be more for remembering the 17 lives lost with a moment of silence rather than bringing up anything political,” he said. “I talked to many people, all of whom have differing political opinions, and they all wanted it to not be political. They only wanted to do the walk if it was in respect for those in Florida.”

Available teachers, administrators, aides and the district’s school resource officer will be asked to monitor the students. While Brosdal said currently there is the potential for all 800 students to be out there, he predicts there will be many who wish not to be involved. Those students will be able to remain in their classrooms with their teachers.

The superintendent said he supports the students’ rights to take part in this national movement if they choose to.

“I guess we’re getting to the point where enough is enough, not just in terms of the horror of the shootings and the kinds of people that come in, but how unsafe schools are now,” Brosdal said. “I believe truly, in a student’s heart, if they want to experience this and reflect and commemorate this tragic event, they should be permitted to do it. I don’t anticipate misbehavior. I believe in our kids.”

Shoreham-Wading River

“The district is currently discussing this matter, and once a decision is made it will be communicated with our parents and students,” said Shoreham-Wading River Superintendent Gerard Poole in an email March 6.

“It will make the students walking targets.”

— Chris Albinski Simion

On a closed Shoreham-Wading River community Facebook page, parent opinions on the walkout ranged from adamant support to heated opposition.

“Definitely against it,” Chris Albinski Simione wrote. “It will make the students walking targets. Every wacko in the country will know when and what time these kids will be outside the schools.”

Another resident, Linda Kelly, asked, “And a walkout will accomplish what exactly? No need to do this on school time.”

But Judy Shaffer Noonan said it will, and always will, be young people who make the biggest changes in society.

“The adults failed,” she said. “Historically, the young have impacted change. The young are the future. I don’t think these kids are doing this out of a sense of entitlement … I’m very proud of the Parkland students who are standing up and demanding change.”

Tyler Holmes, a district graduate, said it will be a historic day.

“I’ll do my part to engage in any positive and well-represented protest instead of sitting home,” he said.

By Fr. Francis Pizzarelli

Father Frank Pizzarelli

So much has happened this past month. We painfully watched the violence that erupted in Charlottesville, Virginia, ripping open the deepest wounds due to racism and discrimination. The rhetoric that erupted about that horrific event has been scandalous. Hate and violence can never be tolerated, no matter what the politics. There is no moral equivalency between neo-Nazis, white supremacists in the KKK and those protesting in support of racial and social justice for all.

As the nation finally settled down after the violence in Charlottesville, Hurricane Harvey ravaged the south of Texas and Hurricane Irma devastated south Florida and the Caribbean. They were two of the worst hurricanes to hit the mainland in a decade. We saw pictures of devastation everywhere. Thousands of people were displaced and lost everything. Families were traumatized throughout Texas and Florida. The aftermath and cleanup is overwhelming and it’s just beginning.

Despite that landscape of destruction and suffering, there has been an outpouring of compassion, love and community service from around the country. So many have stepped up to reach out to those who are suffering and struggling. There have been countless stories of strangers reaching out to strangers, people volunteering and risking their lives to rescue those who were stranded due to the dangerous flooding and amazing stories of people opening their hearts and their homes to those who have been displaced.

It is unfortunate that it takes a catastrophic tragedy like a hurricane to bring out the heart of our American spirit. Hurricane Harvey has become a rallying cry for unity in healing. So many are hoping that this spirit of solidarity and compassion can become contagious and continue beyond the relief efforts in Texas.

Hopefully, those who lead us will see the power of this life lesson, work harder at crossing over the island of separation and begin to build new bridges of understanding and dynamic cooperation for the sake of our nation.

The end of DACA was also announced at the White House through the attorney general’s office. Unfortunately, more than 600,000 undocumented young people must live their lives in limbo and anxiety, producing circumstances that no young person should be afflicted with.

These DACA youth did not choose to come to America — their parents did hoping to find a better way of life for them. For most of them, this is the only country they know. They are hard-working, and many of them are well educated. They definitely add richness to the fabric of our nation, which was founded on immigrants. Hopefully, Congress will step up, do the right thing and pass a law that will protect them and their future.

The summer’s end has also seen a real escalation in the heroin epidemic within our larger community. Unfortunately, with all that has been happening around the country, this national health crisis seems to have gotten lost in the shuffle of life.

Within a 10-day period, I have buried five young people who have died from heroin overdoses. Each young person came from a fine family but was burdened with this horrific affliction; and I am only one clergy person in our area. In talking to other colleagues, they have seen much of the same.

Everyone is on the bandwagon saying we need to do more to confront this horrific epidemic. The politicians are claiming there are monies in the pipeline. Well it must be clogged because there are still no new beds for treatment, no new medical detox centers or any new long-term residential rehabs for those battling opiate addiction. Enough of the rhetoric! If you had a son or daughter burdened with a heroin addiction, what would you do? You need a bed now! Where would you go? There are no beds! In three weeks when a bed might be available, your son or daughter could be dead.

Outpatient treatment is ineffective. Heroin addicts need more than a 28-day program. For the record most insurance companies will only now pay for 11 days — that is scandalous and reprehensible! When are we going to hold our insurance companies accountable for all of the senseless loss of life that their internet policies have contributed to? The time for talking is long past. We need action yesterday to protect our children today!

Fr. Pizzarelli, SMM, LCSW-R, ACSW, DCSW, is the director of Hope House Ministries in Port Jefferson.

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After placing at nationals, Port Jefferson residents Garrett Thibodeau and Sandi Woodhead earn spots on Team USA

Sandi Woodhead with her Smith Point teammates. Photo by Steven Sobel

By Clayton Collier

Smith Point lifeguards are known as some of the nation’s best. The beach has not had a drowning within the protected area since the beach officially opened in 1959.

Now two of their squad have a chance to prove they are among the best in the world, competing in the International Surf Rescue Challenge in Australia. Lifeguards Sandi Woodhead and Garrett Thibodeau, both Port Jefferson residents, will be among the competitors representing Team USA at the games in September.

“It means everything,” Thibodeau said. “I’m so honored to be able to represent the United States and compete against the best competitors in the world.”

Garrett Thibodeau, of Port Jefferson, will compete for Team USA in the international lifeguard games. Photo by Steven Sobel
Garrett Thibodeau, of Port Jefferson, will compete for Team USA in the international lifeguard games. Photo by Steven Sobel

Both Woodhead and Thibodeau will compete in the beach sprint, taplin relay, rescue race and beach flags events. The pair qualified for the international contest after participating on Smith Point’s team in the 2015 Nautica/Brown and Brown USLA National Lifeguard Championships in Daytona Beach, Fla., this past weekend.

Smith Point, an eight-time national champion, finished second at the national games for small beaches. Individually, Woodhead finished second in beach flags, while Thibodeau came in fifth. Woodhead also came in first place in the landline rescue event.

She was pleased with how she finished.

“I would have liked to have done better, because I always challenge myself,” Woodhead said. “But I am happy with how I performed and I am definitely proud of how well my team did.”

Their coach and longtime teammate, Mike Barrows, said the Port Jefferson pair both performed well but he expects an even better performance from Thibodeau in the future.

“Garrett was a bit disappointed in his performance,” he said. “However, he did not rest [before] USLA nationals and trained right through it. With proper rest, I’m
assured he could have won a national beach flags title. They will both be ready and race really well in Australia.”

Making it to nationals is no easy task. Woodhead said that out of the 98 lifeguards employed at Smith Point, about two dozen are chosen for the competition. Each morning, the lifeguards must run a 5K in soft sand and perform workouts when they are off the tower.

Sandi Woodhead, of Port Jefferson, will compete for Team USA in the international lifeguard games. Photo by Steven Sobel
Sandi Woodhead, of Port Jefferson, will compete for Team USA in the international lifeguard games. Photo by Steven Sobel

“If you show that you are excelling in these workouts, the captains and chiefs will take notice, and bring you if they believe you will do well on a national level against thousands of other ocean lifeguards,” Woodhead said.

Thibodeau, who is in his 13th year competing, said he has noticed an increase in attention to the games. The beach flags finals occurred at 8 p.m. under floodlights before a large crowd and was streamed live online. Thibodeau said the growing interest helps to pump him up before his events.

“While I always take my events seriously, knowing that there’s going to be more people watching heightens the energy level, and I feed off of that,” he said. “Imagine playing any sport in an empty stadium compared to a packed stadium with fans cheering. The level of play is going to rise.”

Open and Youth National teams coordinator Skip Prosser said the growing attention to the sport is the result of the hard work and effort of a number of people.

“Any excitement or progression in the level of popularity of the sport is surely the work of all those who have ever been involved, specifically those individuals who have worked for many years on the promotion of the sport and continue to do so, without any official USLA title,” he said. “It is with great hope that when my appointment ends, that I can look back and say that I made a difference.”

As a result of the increased interest, Thibodeau has noticed a higher level of competition at the events. As he heads off to Australia with Team USA next month, however, he said the international games have always been a monster all their own.

“You don’t have the luxury of warming up and getting into your groove,” he said. “You’re going against the best from the very first run. You need to be on point out of the gate, or you could be out.”

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