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Guns

People at a rally in Old Bethpage held up signs signaling for a need for gun legislation. Photo by David Luces

Close to 200 people, including activists, survivors, faith leaders and elected officials filled a room at Haypath Park in Old Bethpage, Aug. 6, to call for common sense gun reform from Washington and to collectively voice ‘enough is enough’.

Moms Demand Action has been at the forefront of LI protests against gun violence. Photo by David Luces

The rally came in the wake of two mass shootings in El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio that took 31 lives over last weekend.

“We are upset, heartbroken — and most importantly we are angry,” Tracy Bacher, of Moms Demand Action, an organization founded by a Dix Hills mother after the Sandy Hook shootings in 2012.  “In less than 24 hours our nation experienced two major mass shootings, this a public health crisis that demands urgent action.”

NYS Senator Jim Gaughran (D-Northport) said it’s time for federal government to act on common-sense gun reform.

“We are calling for Washington to take action, we have passed a red-flag law in the state we believe it’s going to save lives,” the senator said in an interview. “But if they can pass one in Washington it will save a lot more lives. We need to get guns off the street that are in the wrong hands.”

While the federal government has been stagnant in achieving more robust gun reform in recent years, individual states have taken it upon themselves to enact their own measures.

New York, in February, became the latest state to adopt a red-flag law, which is intended to prevent individuals who show signs of being a threat to themselves or others from purchasing or possessing any kind of firearm. It also allows teachers as well as family members and others to petition the courts for protective orders.

Sergio Argueta of S.T.R.O.N.G., a youth advocacy group that focuses against gang and gun violence, said all he and others ask is for the bullets to stop. He began his speech imitating the sounds of gunshots in front of the packed crowd.

“’Pop, pop, pop,’ in day care centers; ‘pop, pop, pop,’ in synagogues; ‘pop, pop, pop’ in houses of worship,” said Argueta. “… It is not fair that we have kids that walk into school that look like prisons. It is not fair that people that go out to Walmart to prepare their kids to start the new school year die.”

Family members of gun violence victims shared their stories.

Tracy Bacher of Moms Demand Action spoke at the rally about a need for gun legislation at the federal level. Photo by David Luces

“It is about time that we do something different, we have been here for Sandy [Hook], we have been here for Parkland and nothing changes,” said Rita Kestenbaum, whose daughter Carol was killed by a gunman in 2007 when she was a sophomore at Arizona State University. “Background checks are lovely, red-flag laws are lovely, but if we don’t get semi-automatic weapons banned, then all of this is for nothing.”

Shenee Johnson said gun violence is preventable. Her son, Kedrick, was killed in a shooting at a high graduation party in 2010. She was in Washington D.C. at a conference called Gun Sense University when she heard of the shooting in El Paso.

“For so many years, I’ve tried to hide my pain and shield my pain from others, but I’m dying inside,” Johnson said. “We can no longer go on like this, how many times do we have to go through something like this.”

Other speakers called for people to fight to end gun violence and the hate that fuels it.

“To eradicate hate, we must fight it with love and action,” said David Kilmnick, of the LGBT Network. “…We say by coming here together that this is not a normal way of life. This is not the America we know.”

Genesis Yanes, a student at Nassau Community College and counselor at S.T.R.O.N.G Youth, was one of many members who brought handmade signs to the rally. The non-profit works with individuals ages 11-21. A hand full of elementary and middle school students were at the rally.

“This is something that affects them directly and their communities, we just want to show them that there are people here who are advocating for this change,” she said.

A breakdown of current legislation on the gun debate

Stock Photo

Mass shootings and gun violence have rocked the nation, leaving people to ask the question:  What can be done to stop the violence?

U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin. File photo

New York State Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) called on Democratic presidential candidates to support strong gun safety laws. U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and U.S. Rep. Peter King (R-NY2), in a show of bipartisanship, called for a vote on the Bipartisan Background Checks Act of 2019 at a press conference Aug. 6.

Improved background checks, banning high-powered automatic and semi-automatic weapons and ammunition, and better mental health screenings have been among the top ideas suggested, some of the legislation relating to which is still pending.  Some are stalled at various levels of Congress.

Here’s a recap of what measures have been recently implemented or proposed. 

Bump stocks

In March 2019 President Donald Trump (R) signed into law a ban on bump stocks, devices which turn weapons into automatic guns that fire rapidly through the recoil of the gun itself.

Red flag laws

New York State passed a “red flag” law in February 2019, which takes effect on Aug. 24. A new report, entitled “Mass Violence in America: Causes, Impacts and Solutions,” which was released Aug. 6 by the National Council for Behavioral Health, suggests that red flag laws may be among the best tools so far suggested for reducing gun violence. Red flag laws enable people, concerned about the well-being of individuals who display violent tendencies or show signs that they may be at risk to engage in gun violence, to contact law enforcement to institute gun control measures through a court process. Under New York’s statute, three categories of people can submit a red flag on someone: law enforcement, school officials and family.

Background checks

H.R.8 Bipartisan Background Checks Act of 2019 

H.R.1112 Enhanced Background Checks Act of 2019

Both bills have passed the House and are stalled in the Senate, with Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell refusing to bring H.R.8 in particular to the floor for vote.

H.R.8 establishes background checks for guns transferred between private parties (unlicensed individuals.) Specifically, it prohibits transfer of firearms unless a gun dealer or importer first takes possession of the weapon and does a background check. The prohibition does not apply to gifts that transfer weapons between spouses.

U.S. Rep Tom Suozzi, who co-sponsored the event, takes the podium. Photo by Sara-Megan Walsh

H.R.1112 revises the background checks to applicable firearm transfers from federal licensed firearms licensee (or a gun dealer) to unlicensed person. 

U.S. Rep. Tom Suozzi (D-NY3) is co-sponsor of both bills. Suozzi represents Queens and the North Shore of Long Island to parts of Kings Park and runs an office in Huntington. Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-NY1) voted “no” on both bills.  

Zeldin defends his “no” vote record on these bills. When asked why, here is his response:

“In the case of Parkland, for example, Nikolas Cruz passed a background check, but clearly should not have had any access to firearms. The current system is flawed. Unfortunately, instead of addressing these shortcomings, H.R.8 and H.R.1112 zeroed in on law-abiding citizens. We need to improve our nation’s background check system by ensuring state reporting and the compilation of all relevant information. We cannot determine if certain people are unfit to own a firearm if we don’t have the necessary available information.”

H.R.4477 Fix NICS (National Instant Criminal Background Check System) Act of 2017 

Passed as part of Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2018.

H.R.4477 amends the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act to require each federal agency and department to supply disqualifying records of a person prohibited from possessing a firearm.

Zeldin supported the Fix NICS bill, and had this to say:

“We need to ensure lunatics manifesting violent criminal intentions to murder with firearms have access to none. That’s why I supported the Fix NICS bill, which could have saved 26 lives at the First Baptist Church [of Sutherland Springs] in Texas, and why I called for a congressional hearing and action in the wake of the tragedy in Parkland. I support the Mass Violence Prevention [Reform] Act, which would improve information sharing to prevent and deter violence caused by criminal use of firearms, reduce the flow of firearms onto the black market and provide law enforcement with increased resources to keep our communities safe. I also supported the STOP School Violence Act that helps school personnel and law enforcement identify and prevent violence in schools.”

Concealed carry reciprocity 

H.R.38 Concealed Carry Reciprocity Act of 2019 

The bill allows individuals to carry concealed weapons to other states that allow concealed weapons. The bill was introduced in January and referred to committee with no recent action. 

Suozzi voted “no” on similar legislation proposed in 2017. Zeldin is a co-sponsor of the 2019 legislation. 

A representative for Zeldin had this to say on the bill:

“The congressman supports the rights of law- abiding Americans to own firearms to protect themselves, their family and other loved ones. He believes lunatics manifesting violent criminal intentions to murder with firearms have access to none.”

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Sheriff Errol Toulon Jr. and his deputies spoke on what students should do about school shootings. Photo by Kyle Barr

When Suffolk County Deputy Sheriff Brian Butler asked Port Jefferson High School students whether they felt safe in school, approximately  half of the assembled ninth- to 12th-graders languidly raised their hands.

The county sheriff’s office has been conducting violence prevention classes with districts called Say Something as part of the national nonprofit Sandy Hook Promise campaign to mitigate school shootings. The presentation that was made to Port Jefferson middle and high schoolers Feb. 26 asked students to learn the warning signs of a person who may commit a violent act in or out of school, and then tell a teacher, school official or another adult about it.

“We’re not going to completely prevent a school shooting, but we can do a much better job,” Butler said.

“We’re not going to completely prevent a school shooting, but we can do a much better job.”

— Brian Butler

The deputy sheriff said one of the issues he has seen with kids being unwilling to come to adults with these comments is the aura of being called out as a “snitch.”

“We live in this, ‘I don’t want to be a snitch’ culture,” he said. “That’s a prison term.”

Butler said there were a number of warning signs students should look out for among their peers, including withdrawing from others, bullying, excessive anger, thoughts or plans of harming one’s self or others or other significant personality changes. Though the most obvious sign is a social media post, which in past shootings, shooters have used to explicitly announce their intentions days before the tragedies. 

The department pointed to a recent event in Brentwood where  Suffolk County police arrested a 16-year-old student Feb. 24 who allegedly posted a message on Snapchat saying he would be “shooting up the Brentwood Freshman Center” the following day. A student took a screen capture of the Snapchat message and sent it to officials, who arrested the young man on charges of making a terroristic threat.

While some could look at those warning signs and see a young person going through the normal emotional swings of becoming an adult, the deputies said the point of the presentation was to increase student’s awareness and to lighten the stigma of speaking up.

“This is not a paranoia thing,” Deputy Sheriff Keith Hoffman said. 

Sandy Hook Promise was formed in part by parents of children involved in the Newtown, Connecticut, school shooting in 2012, where a 20-year-old man fatally shot six adults and 20 elementary school children, all of whom were 7 years old or younger. The nonprofit announced a partnership with the county sheriff’s office in August 2018. Since then, Butler said the department has been to more than 10 school districts and spoken in front of hundreds of children.

“It may not happen here, but it might happen somewhere else you might be.”

— Errol Toulon Jr.

While the sheriff deputies said the likelihood of a school shooting happening in Port Jefferson is slim, Sheriff Errol Toulon Jr. (D) said the specter of the possibility hangs over students as they continue in school and even into higher education.

“It may not happen here, but it might happen somewhere else you might be,” Toulon said.

Still, many schools across Long Island have increased security measures. Port Jeff Superintendent Paul Casciano said the 2018-19 school budget included increases for the number of security staff, as well as funds for new security vestibules in both the elementary school and the combined high school and middle school building. These projects are currently awaiting review by New York State’s Department of Education and won’t likely be completed until this summer or later.

Other districts have taken the step of hiring armed guards for their schools, such as Mount Sinai and Miller Place, but Casciano said the point when security becomes overwhelming for students is when “kids feel like they’re going into a prison.”

“It’s a community decision,” he added.

Gun control activist Linda Beigel Schulman speaks next to a picture of her son Scott. Photo by David Luces

By David Luces

As the first anniversary of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida, passed by Feb. 14, gun control advocates and Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives are gearing up for another round of gun debate.

U.S. Rep. Tom Suozzi (D-Glen Cove) alongside gun violence prevention groups advocated for support for a proposed federal bill that would require background checks on all sales of firearms at a press conference Feb. 19. 

“We are not trying to take anyone’s guns away — we are trying to prevent people who shouldn’t have a gun from getting one in the first place.”

— Tom Suozzi

H.R. 8, or the Bipartisan Background Checks Act of 2019, was first introduced in early January by U.S. Rep. Mike Thompson (D-California). Suozzi is a co-sponsor of the bill. 

The congressman announced that H.R.8 had passed the House Judiciary Committee and would next be put to vote on the House floor. 

“It will go to the floor in the next week or two,” he said. “I feel good that this bill will pass the House of Representatives — the challenge is whether or not we can get the votes in the Senate.” 

The bill would also see the end of a known loophole in firearm sales. 

“There is a gun show loophole,” Suozzi said. “We are not trying to take anyone’s guns away — we are trying to prevent people who shouldn’t have a gun from getting one in the first place.” 

Currently under federal law, individuals who are convicted felons of domestic abuse, those who have a restraining order or those who have been found using controlled substances are restricted from purchasing guns. Gun control activists have argued the gun show loophole has made it possible for private and unlicensed sellers to market firearms to buyers without going through a background check process. 

“I stand here today with Congressman Suozzi to fully back his support of reasonable gun control,” Dix Hills resident Linda Beigel Schulman of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America said.

Schulman’s son, Scott, was a teacher at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida and was one of 17 individuals killed in the Parkland shooting. She said she first met the congressman at a March for Our Lives rally. 

“He spoke with me about the shooting, and I knew his concerns, his support was genuine,” Schulman said. “He is fighting for the safety of all of us.”

“Just this Friday there was another workplace shooting — this has to stop.”

— Linda Beigel Schulman

Suozzi said many guns that are brought into New York State illegally are purchased through this loophole. He pointed to a statistic that said over 70 percent of gun crimes that have occurred in New York have been caused with firearms that originated out of the state, according to a 2016 report from the New York State Attorney General’s office.

Schulman said the bill is a bipartisan attempt to pass common sense gun control legislation and that safety from gun violence is not a partisan issue.  

“If asked the question: Do you want to be safe, your children to be safe? Have you ever heard anyone answer no?,” she said. 

Marybeth Baxter, Long Island coordinator of New Yorkers Against Gun Violence agreed with Schulman, stating that universal background checks are paramount for the safety of New York, other states and the nation. 

“Just this Friday there was another workplace shooting — this has to stop,” Schulman said. “If the universal background check prevents just one shooting, then it has done it purpose, it has saved lives.”

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Two men smashed the front window of the Rocky Point Barbershop in the Rocky Point business district and stole store memorabilia Feb. 20, store security camera footage shows.

Security camera footage from Rocky Point Barbershop shows two men robbing the front display case. Image from Rocky Point Barbershop

The two individuals, one wearing a hood and the other a bandana, broke the front window of the barbershop, located at 576 Route 25A at around 2:45 a.m., store owner Yavuz Can said. The robbers didn’t manage to trip any alarms as they went in, despite motion sensors on the inside. Store employees did not learn about the breakin until later in the morning, and police were contacted around 8 a.m.

The shop, known in the area for its $10 men’s haircuts, kept a number of expensive memorabilia in the front case under the register. Can said the men stole hundreds of dollars worth of collectible coins from the case. The robbers also took display hand grenades and eight display knives, which the shop owner said were valued at about $60 each. Also stolen was a 20-gauge shotgun and shells, worth around $175. Yavuz added the broken front door glass would cost the store around another $400 to replace. The robbers did not steal from the cash register.

“This hasn’t happened before,” the shop owner said.

One of the figures captured on video at the break-in. Photo from Rocky Point Barbershop

Suffolk County Police confirmed the shop had been broken into that morning and that items were taken, though they could not confirm any information on the ongoing investigation.

Yavuz asked anybody who might recognize the people in the video to contact Suffolk County Police.

Suffolk County Crime Stoppers offers a cash reward of up to $5,000 for information that leads to an arrest. Anyone with information about these incidents can contact Suffolk County Crime Stoppers to submit an anonymous tip by calling 1-800-220-TIPS, texting “SCPD” and your message to “CRIMES” (274637) or by email at www.tipsubmit.com.

All calls, text messages and emails are kept confidential.

 

Commack HIgh School. Photo from Google Maps

Suffolk County police officers arrested a man who works as an evening custodian for the Commack School District after a search found he had a stash of illegal guns and drugs inside his Patchogue home.

Patrick Musumeci, 30, was arrested Feb. 6 by police officers and faces 24 drug- and weapons-related charges.

Patrick Musumeci. Photo from SCPD

Following an investigation, Suffolk’s 5th Squad Special Operations Team and Emergency Section Service officers along with 5th Precinct Gang Unit officers executed a search warrant on Musumeci’s home on Wilmarth Avenue at approximately 5:35 a.m.

In the raid, officers found 16 guns inside the Patchogue home, including one Glock semiautomatic handgun, a Taurus semiautomatic handgun and four assault rifles, with ammunition. Two of the guns, a Smith & Wesson pistol and Ruger pistol had both previously been reported stolen. In addition to the guns, officers seized five sets of brass knuckles and a switchblade.

In addition to the weapons, Suffolk County police officers seized quantities of both prescription opiates and illegal drugs from the Patchogue home. The drugs found included oxycodone, Xanax, concentrated cannabis, marijuana, morphine pills and packaging materials.

Musumeci is charged with three counts of criminal possession of a controlled substance in the third degree, criminal possession of a controlled substance in the fifth degree, six counts of criminal possession in the seventh degree, two counts of criminal use of drug paraphernalia in the second degree, criminal possession of marijuana in the fourth degree, five counts criminal possession of a weapon in the third degree, four counts criminal possession of a firearm, criminal possession of a weapon in the fourth degree and one count of grand larceny in the fourth degree.

Commack school officials reacted to news of Musumeci’s arrest by posting a letter to district residents on its website.

“The district has found no evidence to date that he ever brought a weapon or drugs onto school property,” reads the district’s statement. “To date, we have not found any suspicious activity on school property.”

Prior to being hired, Musumeci was fingerprinted and underwent a background check by New York State, according to the district. He was cleared, and state law would have required the district to be notified of any subsequent arrests, of which they claim to have received none.

Commack school officials said the district also has conducted an extensive search of the employee lockers, areas of the buildings the evening custodian was responsible for overseeing and reviewed buildingwide video footage in the wake of the allegations.

“The district and its outside security consultant will continue to review its safety and security plans and determine whether or not additional precautions are warranted,” read the district’s statement.

Musumeci was arraigned Feb. 7 in 1st District Court in Central Islip. He was ordered held in lieu of $100,000 cash or $200,000 bond, which had not been posted as of Feb. 13.

Commack school officials said their investigation into the matter is ongoing and the district is fully cooperating with the Suffolk police department.

Law enforcement representatives from Suffolk County Police Department and local police departments discuss armed security personnel in schools at a Northport board of education meeting. Photo by Kyle Barr

The Northport-East Northport school district has been taking it slow and steady in considering hiring armed guards for its school buildings. The board of education is in the process of soliciting professional opinions from local police and security advisers to determine the path forward for its schools.

About 70 people filed into a public meeting hosted by the school board Oct. 11, which included members of the Suffolk County Police Department, Northport Police Department, Asharoken Police Department, the school district’s retained attorneys from Ingerman Smith LLP, the district’s insurance provider New York Schools Insurance Reciprocal and the district’s security adviser to answer the board and the community questions about the potential impact of hiring armed security guards.

“There is a lot of interest about this throughout the county,” said Suffolk County Police Department Inspector Michael Romagnoli, the commanding officer of the department. “All are debating this topic at similar levels.”

The board hosted a previous meeting March 1 where the community came out in droves to voice support for the district hiring armed guards, though when asked whether he would want armed guards Leonard Devlin, the district’s security consultant, said he would prefer not to.

It would be my recommendation to not have armed guards in our schools.’

— Leonard Devlin

“It would be my recommendation to not have armed guards in our schools,” Devlin said. “If we were to have armed security personnel, the officer would only respond if there was an active shooter, not if there was a physical confrontation with a student, teacher or of any nature.”

The district said it has upgraded multiple security measures since the start of the year. Devlin said the district hired 12 new unarmed guards, which now totals 30 guards who patrol campus grounds during the school day from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. The district also purchased six new security vehicles to complement an existing six, which should arrive in about a month.

Security vestibules are already installed or close to being installed for all schools except Bellerose Avenue Elementary, Ocean Avenue Elementary and Northport Middle School, which the security consultant said would be completed in the future as part of the district’s ongoing $40 million capital bond project. The district said it has installed 30 new cameras this year for a new total of 400 throughout the buildings, though these are monitored sparingly throughout the day and in the late-night hours, Devlin said.

One of the biggest questions raised surrounding the need for armed guards in schools is whether local police response time is fast enough to deal with an armed assailant. Romagnoli said their response time for local cars was four to five minutes, while Northport Police Chief William Ricca said their response time was three to four minutes. The inspector said that a school shooting comes in as a Priority 0, the highest priority, the same as if a call came in that an officer was shot. Romagnoli said since the 1999 Columbine High School massacre in Colorado cops are trained to enter an active shooter situation immediately upon arriving at the scene.

“Our involvement in the schools has increased tremendously within the last five years, our number of school incidents in the 2nd Precinct has gone up 50 percent, and the officers have more familiarity with the schools just from their daily patrols,” SCPD Deputy Inspector Matthew McCormick said.

Columbine was a long time ago, and now the police are pulled in so many different directions with what to prioritize around Long Island.”

— David Stein

Board Vice President David Stein said he was concerned it was not possible for every member of every police department to be intimate with the district’s six separate school facilities.

“Columbine was a long time ago, and now the police are pulled in so many different directions with what to prioritize around Long Island,” Stein said.

Romagnoli said the 2nd Precinct has one school resource officer assigned to cover all school districts in the area, not accounting for the other police officers who sometimes take up SRO duties part time on top of their normal police work. The SRO is responsible for being a liaison from the district to the police and for safety and crime prevention in schools.

While some members of the board questioned if guards should be on the premises for longer than regular school hours, to protect kids in after-school activities and sports, but Devlin said it came down to money. He estimated armed guards working at approximately $15 an hour for an eight-hour day would cost the district $208,200, if one guard for each of the district’s nine school campuses were allotted. Though Devlin added if the district wants total coverage for the day, including an hour break for each guard, it would have to hire another three to cover them on their breaks, adding up to just under $400,000.

Police representatives admitted armed guards and police arriving on scene of an emergency could present other problems. There is potential for a “blue on blue” situation, where two armed responders potentially confront each other. Current school security recently changed their uniform to be a bright gold color, but there is no consistency in the uniform between armed presences in other schools. Romagnoli said because of these inconsistencies it’s important the district keep a clear line of communication to the police departments and for dispatch to know of the armed presence inside the school.

We routinely drill in active shooter response and deliberately build those scenarios into our drills, and I can say we do have a discharge from one officer to another officer. We would rather that happen in training than out in the world.”

— Michael Romagnoli

“Our protocol is the uniformed officer responding is in charge,” Romagnoli said. “We routinely drill in active shooter response and deliberately build those scenarios into our drills, and I can say we do have a discharge from one officer to another officer. We would rather that happen in training than out in the world.”

Those on the panel representing the district’s liability concerns said insurance would cover the district in most cases should an armed guard be present. John Peppard, the senior vice president of NYSIR, the school’s insurance handler, said the only time the school might have a problem is if the guards, as school employees, went rogue in some way.

Local resident Denise Schwartz said despite assurances from local police departments promising prioritized response, the comments made by the panel members did not instill much optimism, especially considering the presence of just one SCPD SRO and the little time the district monitors the security cameras.

“Several things they said made me feel even less safe,” Swartz said.

For Northport resident Tammie Topel, who said she’s still on the fence about hiring armed guards, the meeting did little to eliminate the catch 22 inherent in the decision.

“I think that it opens up whether you do, or you don’t, you’re either not indemnified, or there’s going to be a lawsuit, or there might be an accidental shooting,” Topel said. “There’s 400 cameras that are not being monitored at all times, so what’s the sense of wasting that money on cameras … they should be monitored if that’s what we’re going to be using them for.”

The district will be hosting another workshop Nov. 1 where it will discuss the emotional and psychological impact of having armed guards in schools. On Nov. 8, the board will discuss whether it will put the item on the agenda for vote at a subsequent meeting.

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It’s the end of July so it’s likely the minds of students, administrators and parents have drifted far away from the hallways of their schools, away from school board meetings and discussions about funding safety improvements. It’s understandable. But following an in-office, exclusive interview with Suffolk County Sheriff Errol Toulon Jr. (D) July 20, county residents should sleep well knowing he has allowed himself no such break.

Hardening schools for the worst-case scenario — an intruder entering a local school with the means and intent to impose lethal, widespread harm — has become a top priority for districts across the country since the February shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, that left 17 people dead. In the absence of substantive action on tightening gun laws with commonsense reform coming from the increasingly feckless Washington anytime soon, local municipalities and schools have had to get creative.

This week, Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone (D) signed a bill permitting the county to pursue bond funding for a mobile application that government employees and school administrators will be able to download and use to directly contact law enforcement in the event of a shooting at a school or government building. In the aftermath of Parkland, Bellone announced an initiative that would allow districts interested in participating to grant access to school security systems to the Suffolk County Police Department, so that in the case of an emergency, law enforcement can see exactly what’s going on in the school. New York State passed its own set of bills in the spring as well, mostly geared toward allocating funds to districts interested in securing infrastructure or hiring additional security or mental health personnel.

These plans are a great start, especially, again, since we would all turn blue in the face holding our breath waiting for Congress. But Toulon raised some issues that seemed to us like they needed to be heard.

When asked if he could wave a magic wand and grant one thing to all 69 of Suffolk’s school districts to make them more secure, he identified establishing uniform practices countywide for training security — armed or otherwise — so that responders have a better feel for what they’re walking into should one of these dark days strike close to home. Uncertainty about what to expect between police and school district security should be the last thing either should be worried about in the midst of a frantic mission to save lives.

Further, Toulon said he has made his office available to districts interested in having their security practices assessed on a voluntary basis. So far, he said just 10 of the 69 districts have taken him up on the offer. We’d like to see that number reach 100 percent by the end of this year.

In addition, the sheriff’s office plans to host a forum for Suffolk school superintendents Aug. 16 at St. Joseph’s College in Patchogue to talk broadly about school security and to share ideas. The offices of the sheriff and county executive have not let this issue fade away during the summer months, and we hope schools haven’t forgotten either.

Guards say they’re settling in to posts in the district, will be brought back in September

From left, John, one of Mount Sinai’s armed security guards, Superintendent Gordon Brosdal and Christopher Innace, Pro Protection Inc. CEO, in one of the district’s school buildings, now guarded by armed security. Photo by Kyle Barr

“Guns in schools.”

Even to Mount Sinai Superintendent Gordon Brosdal it sounds like a foreign concept, but since March, the district has had four armed security guards stationed in all school buildings.

“When you look at what’s going on around you — you can’t ignore it,” Brosdal said. “Are we going to wait around for something before it happens?”

It has been a few months since the district hired its guards from Hauppauge-based Pro Protection Security Inc., and with the school year now over, those guards, such as elementary school guard John, said they have settled into a routine.

“The students and staff see me every day — the same face — and they get used to me. I think that’s really important for what I’m here to do.”

— John, security guard

“I man the hallways, make sure no unauthorized persons come in around the building, are going outside unauthorized — I check the doors, make sure they’re locked,” John said. “The students and staff see me every day — the same face — and they get used to me. I think that’s really important for what I’m here to do.”

Mount Sinai School District asked that the last names of the guards and their exact locations inside the school not be disclosed.

Despite the huge push for increased school security after the Feb. 14 shooting in Parkland, Florida, only four of 69 districts in Suffolk County have opted to hire armed guards — Center Moriches, Hauppauge, Miller Place and Mount Sinai — as far as TBR News Media has identified. Other districts have publicly expressed interest in the possibility, but to date those are the only three.

It’s also a commitment in financial terms. Hauppauge is paying $300,000 for its contract to hire its armed security guards and Mount Sinai’s 2018-19 adopted budget included $400,000 in security funding, which was $305,000 more than the 2017-18 school year.

For the last months of the 2017-18 school year, four guards stood at attention around the Mount Sinai campus, which includes the elementary, middle and high schools. Each was dressed in a clean suit with an earpiece microphone in his ear and a concealed gun at his side. Though Christopher Innace, the CEO of Pro Protection, said the important thing in hiring these guards wasn’t necessarily about the heat they were packing, but how they could interact with students.

“In the case of the elementary school we wanted someone who had a bubbly personality — someone who is outgoing, is smiling — things of that nature,” Innace said. “We also train our officers to say hello, good morning and be interactive with the parents, the community and visitors. That’s just the impression we want to give.”

Innace said each of the security guards is a retired police officer. Security guard Dave mans the campus gate, Paul is stationed at the high school, John serves the elementary school and helps Don at the middle school.

“The kids have been excellent — they come up to me and shake my hand, they give me a high five,” John said. “You didn’t get that sense of it so much working [as an officer] in the city, but here it seems everyone is overwhelmingly appreciative, and it’s a nice feeling.”

Innace and vice president of Pro Protection Christopher Alger both said the recruitment process for the guards in Mount Sinai was rigorous and included background checks. The district specifically didn’t look for prison guards or people that Innace called the “bouncer” type. All the guards at Mount Sinai are trained in what Innace referred to as “verbal judo,” or using speech to de-escalate tense situations.

In the months leading up to the final decision to hire armed guards in March, the Mount Sinai community was divided on the issue, and many remain so. Some felt the armed guards were an absolute necessity and the only way to really ensure a safe school.

“I fully support it and I sleep better at night as a result of it,” Mount Sinai resident Heather Janae said. “When I pick up my elementary-aged daughter from school every day and see the armed guard standing there I am content. It’s a very sad and unfortunate need, but in my opinion, it’s a need.”

Others in the community said a gun in school, no matter who was holding it, could lead to danger and violence.

“It’s a travesty — more guns is not the answer to too many guns, especially in or near our schools where there appears to be the most hideous shootings,” Mount Sinai resident Ron DiGennaro said. His daughter graduated from Mount Sinai High School in 2002.

Some residents were concerned how the guards would respond to kids with mental and physical disabilities. While Brosdal said there haven’t been any problems in those cases, he said he plans to host training with the guards and the school’s special education teachers designed to teach the guards how to interact with students who have special needs.

“It’s a travesty — more guns is not the answer to too many guns, especially in or near our schools where there appears to be the most hideous shootings.”

— Ron DiGennaro

Since the Parkland shooting, security has become a greater concern for every local school district. Shoreham-Wading River, Smithtown and Kings Park school districts are building security vestibules in all school buildings over the summer. Smithtown is receiving unarmed security guards at the elementary schools, and the Huntington School District is replacing old doors and is hiring new security guards.

Along with its armed guards, Mount Sinai is using money from its unassigned fund balance to finance renovations to the school’s perimeter fencing and replacing some of the glass fronts seen at the high school.

Alger, who himself is a retired NYPD detective first grade, said the armed guards are just a part of the four D’s of security, which are: detect, deter, deflect and defend. Cameras and staff can act as detection. Layered entrances, such as vestibules, locked doors and perimeter fencing function as deterrents. Glazed and bullet proof glass works well as deflection, but Alger said a guard capable of stopping an intruder is the only real defense against an intruder.

“We’re not running away from the shooter,” Innace said. “We hear shots, we hear a commotion, we are running right to that scene. We’re running right to that shooter.”

Since the beginning of 2018, 26 students have been killed in school shootings through the middle of May, according to fact checking website Politifact. Accounting for school shootings that have not resulted in any deaths, there has been roughly a shooting per week since the start of the year.

Even with armed guards, Alger said there is no guarantee there will be no fatalities in the event of a shooting, but the severity of any shooting is decreased dramatically.

“Armed security isn’t the 100 percent cure but it will 100 percent at least reduce some of these casualties that are taking place,” Alger said.

Brosdal said he feared schools that do not take action now in hiring guards would regret it later.

“It takes one shooting on Long Island, only one, and I believe you’re going to see people clamoring for armed guards,” Brosdal said, then emphasized his point. “You’ll have people clamoring.”

Alger said all four guards have committed to returning to their positions at the start of the next school year in September.

An assault rifle, the weapon of choice in many mass shootings, including the Feb. 14 massacre at a Florida high school. Stock photo

The shots fired in a Florida high school last week are ringing out across Suffolk County.

Immediately following the Feb. 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, that left 17 students and faculty members dead, Suffolk County school district officials began to batten down the hatches and inform residents that preparations are in place if an active shooter situation were to occur closer to home.

MOUNT SINAI

Since news of the shooting broke last Wednesday, Mount Sinai Superintendent Gordon Brosdal said he and other administrators and members of the board of education have been thoroughly discussing, evaluating and prioritizing security upgrades across the district’s three buildings to make its existing emergency preparedness plan even safer. He said residents will see upgrades sooner rather than later.

“These are tense times now, and the safety of students and staff is paramount,” Brosdal said. “We’ve been fortunate in the past, but you can’t take anything for granted anymore.”

“These are tense times now, and the safety of students and staff is paramount.”

— Gordon Brosdal

Some of the upgrades currently being considered include the installation of more security cameras in each building in the district; security films for all windows that deter attackers from gaining access to a building via shooting through glass, buying students, teachers and staff more time to escape in the process; the implementation of identification badges for school staff and different-colored lanyards to be worn in each building to pinpoint outsiders; the hiring of retired law enforcement personnel inside the elementary, middle and high schools — currently the district has two outdoor security guards who monitor traffic entering and exiting the school grounds; and a better monitoring system on the district’s entranceway alongside Route 25A.

“We are having real, hard discussions about this,” Brosdal said. “We also fielded calls from parents last week.”

The district’s existing emergency operations plan, Brosdal said, includes lockdown drills, evacuation procedures and relocation of students from one school to another in emergency situations.

He added that, at Mount Sinai, all visitors must enter the buildings through a security vestibule and are required to show identification and state a reason for entering the building.

He said each building in the district is equipped with the School Active Violence Emergency hotline, an emergency notification system rolled out by Suffolk County in 2013 in response to the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in December 2012. With the push of a button, the phone systems are programmed to automatically bypass normal communication channels and immediately dial the county police 911 center supervisor. The program displays the school’s location and initiates an immediate dispatch to the nearest available emergency responders.

According to Suffolk Legislator Sarah Anker (D-Mount Sinai), who helped launch the system, only 34 out of 70 school districts are equipped with it. However, she hopes that changes in light of the latest tragedy.

“When they send a child to school after events like this, parents feel helpless — they have no control over what happens to their child throughout the day and have no choice but to rely on school and law enforcement security,” Anker said. “So, by working together, this program creates a stronger network of security for students in the schools. As soon as that phone rings, within eight seconds, the response process begins.”

SHOREHAM-WADING RIVER

Over at Shoreham-Wading River Central School District, Superintendent Gerard Poole released a letter to parents the day after the Florida shooting, ensuring that “safety and security for our students, staff and visitors is a daily topic within our schools” and is the first agenda item at each administrative meeting.

“When we hear of these tragedies, we are reminded that our district’s preparedness for any emergency situation is of the utmost importance,” Poole said in the letter. “Each school conducts drills related to evacuation, lockdown and lockout. These drills are observed by our security team and assessed for improvements.”

“When we hear of these tragedies, we are reminded that our district’s preparedness for any emergency situation is of the utmost importance.”

— Gerard Poole

He added that this past summer, the district hired an outside security consultant firm to add an extra level of expertise to its plans, drills and overall preparedness.

In the Emergency Planning Information for Parents tab located on the district’s website, some of Shoreham’s security procedures are outlined: Outside doors are locked when school is in session; security guards are at each school, checking entrances to monitor the district’s access points and perimeters; all school visitors must obtain a pass; and school personnel are required to wear photo ID badges.

“On an ongoing basis, the district is reviewing its use of technology to further strengthen our security plans,” Poole said. “In addition, with the support of our security consultants, the district recently completed a security audit and developed a multipronged plan to further enhance the safety and security of our campuses.”

According to the district, unique variables are occasionally implemented into the drills, like a blocked exit, in order to present a more realistic scenario.

PORT JEFFERSON

“Although teaching and learning is our core mission, families, first and foremost, want to know that their loved ones are safe at school,” said Port Jefferson Superintendent Paul Casciano in a Feb. 15 email. He explained that, in preparedness for a similar situation, emergency drills are conducted regularly at the school, security guards are in place and cameras are installed throughout the district’s property. “We are working collaboratively with the Suffolk County Police Department to identify areas for continued attention moving forward.”

He also said that in the aftermath of the Florida shooting, discussions were held in classrooms for students and efforts will continue to be made to alleviate stress, anxiety and depression in them.

“Internally, we are working with students through a variety of programs and strategies to address their social-emotional health,” he said.

ELWOOD

Kenneth Bossert, superintendent of the Elwood school district, said while he is hesitant to make public any portion of the school’s full emergency preparedness plan, in an effort to shield tactics from the “bad guys,” the district does plan for all types of emergencies on a consistent basis. In cooperation with the Suffolk County Police Department, he said the district conducts a minimum of four scheduled drills per year.

“We’re all in this together.”

— Kenneth Bossert

On the night of the Florida shooting, Bossert made, what he called, a rather lengthy phone call to all parents to share this information and put minds at ease.

“We’re all in this together,” he said.

SMITHTOWN

For better protection against intruders, this school district is equipped with the Raptor Visitor Management System, a web-based monitoring software designed to track visitors and electronically check them against public databases, as well as exterior cameras for all its elementary buildings, according to Superintendent James Grossane. He also said each school building has access-controlled doors operated by a swipe card.

“I want to reassure you that we take school safety and security very seriously,” Grossane said in a letter to parents. “Our schools are a safe place. As a district, we continuously review and improve our districtwide Emergency Management Plan as needed to incorporate any new policies or improvements in security equipment. Additionally, all district staff undergo annual training on the emergency response plan, and students and staff participate in drills throughout the school year.”

Grossane included a website link for the National Association of School Psychologists, and the organization’s document “Talking to Children About Violence: Tips for Parents and Teachers” for students coping with the recent tragedy.

KINGS PARK

“Even though yesterday’s events seem far away from Kings Park, they are a frightening reminder of the importance of safety and the potential impact of senseless acts of violence.”

— Tim Eagen

Superintendent Timothy Eagen at nearby Kings Park school district also provided information from the NASP website to parents and informed them that psychologists and school counselors were available to students in the days following the tragedy.

In his letter, Eagen urged parents to speak with their children about the importance of reporting concerning activities they might see or hear from other students to adults, as many perpetrators of school shootings tend to leave clues leading up to their eventual rampages. These signs, he said, may include posts to social media relating to weapons, cruelty to animals or any reference to past tragedies, like Columbine.

“Even though yesterday’s events seem far away from Kings Park, they are a frightening reminder of the importance of safety and the potential impact of senseless acts of violence,” Eagen wrote in a Feb. 15 letter. “[But] while the world can sometimes seem out of control, schools are incredibly safe places where children experience security, normalcy, inclusion and connections to positive possibilities. As I have often said, the three pillars of Kings Park are: Pride, service and family. Our collective vigilance will help to ensure that Kings Park remains a safe place to live and raise a family.”