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Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School

Members of the SCSSA Executive Board met with Suffolk County law enforcement officials and lawmakers to discuss its five-point Blueprint for Action to Enhance School Safety Aug. 27. Photo from SCSSA

Superintendents in Suffolk County are trying to get their schools all on the same page when it comes to safety.

Following the particularly deadly school shooting — though just the latest in a long line of similar occurrences — that took place in Parkland, Florida at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in February, which resulted in 17 casualties, discussions about concrete steps to enhance safety for students and staff in buildings from coast to coast have been seemingly unending. In Suffolk County, school officials have teamed up to release a five-point blueprint of actionable steps, officially recommended by the Suffolk County School Superintendents Association Aug. 27 to local, state and federal lawmakers.

The superintendents are calling on lawmakers to invest in the School Resource Officer program, providing additional officers in Suffolk County schools; adopt legislation that enhances campus safety, including amending the New York State Criminal Procedure Law dealing with setting bail; make the New York State SAFE Act the law of the land; support the social, emotional and mental health of children through screening programs and education initiatives; and provide institutional support to finance school safety, calling for the state to initiate School Security Aid and to exempt school safety expenditures from the tax levy limitation.

“While school safety has always been a top priority, following the horrific massacre at Columbine High School in Columbine, Colorado, and the tragic events that followed, the importance of a strong working relationship between the police, mental health providers and public-school officials has become more important than ever,” the association said in a press release. “The SCSSA plans to continue to work together with Suffolk County law enforcement and local, state and federal legislators to turn these plans into actions that will improve school safety and the safety and wellness of all students in Suffolk County.”

In August, representatives from Sandy Hook Promise, a national nonprofit organization that was founded by parents from the Connecticut elementary school to carry out its mission of preventing all gun-related deaths, held a forum for the association and law enforcement officials. The purpose of the meeting was to share details about four programs they’ve created aimed at preventing violence in schools.

The four strategies, which fall under the nonprofit’s Know the Signs program, are taught to youth and adults free of charge in the hopes of fostering an environment that empowers everyone in the community to help identify and intervene when someone is at risk free of charge. Superintendents who were in attendance from several local districts pledged to further examine Sandy Hook Promise’s programs and to take steps toward implementing them.

During an exclusive interview with TBR News Media in July, Suffolk County Sheriff Errol Toulon Jr. said creating countywide standards for school security is a priority for his department.

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Students at Stony Brook University organized a March for Our Lives protest. Photo from Amanda DeJesus

While March for Our Lives rallies were scheduled in various towns on Long Island, members of the Stony Brook University community felt it was important that the campus get involved in the movement, too.

Amanda DeJesus, an undergraduate student at the Stony Brook School of Social Welfare, was one of the organizers of a March for Our Lives rally at SBU. The event started at 11 a.m. March 24 and many of the approximately 300 people who attended the university rally went to Port Jefferson Station afterward to take part in that protest.

Local residents joined SBU students and faculty at a March for Our Lives rally March 24. Photo from Evelyn Costello

“As a social welfare student, promoting social justice is the cornerstone of our profession,” DeJesus said. “I believe that demanding common-sense gun laws is a first step in creating a safer society for everyone, so that is why I wanted Stony Brook University to become a part in this very important conversation.”

Alli Ross, from Port Jefferson Station, attended the SBU rally with her fiancé. She said it was the first march she ever attended, and she was amazed every time she looked back and saw more people joining in. While she doesn’t have children yet, she said she has younger sisters and cousins, and ensuring children’s safety is important to her.

“This is just something that really hits hard for me … as it does with a lot of others,” Ross said. “Just being a part of something like that, and everyone coming together and showing that this is something that needs to be done, something that needs to be changed, it makes me feel a little bit better. It makes me feel like there is hope because there are so many like-minded people who care so strongly about it.”

Courtney Kidd, an adjunct professor at the university, spoke at the event and said she was honored when the student-organizers invited her. She said she first thought of declining and suggesting a speaker who would be an expert on gun violence, but then she remembered when she was a student hearing the saying: “One voice can make a difference; I am one voice.”

“I realized that this march is about more than rehearing the statistics that you already know, and instead about making change,” Kidd said at the rally. “It’s not about their voice — it’s about yours. So, if I can help you realize that you don’t always need the years and the title, that we need your voice, then I may be able to say I made a difference.”

DeJesus said she hopes the young people will continue voicing their concerns.

“I believe that we will be able to see change if we continue speaking about it,” DeJesus said. “We must keep the conversation going, never forget all the lives lost due to gun violence, continue walking out and don’t let anyone silence us.”

She said it’s vital to get out and vote.

“The midterm elections are so important and not enough people, especially young people, are registered,” DeJesus said. “The best way to make your voices heard is to vote. You never know if your vote will be the one that makes a difference.”

Taking the lead of demonstrations started by people barely old enough to drive during the days of the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights movement, North Shore students marched Saturday. Their messages were clear in their rhetoric delivered over a sound system from the bed of a pickup truck and on homemade signs: lives lost to gun violence are no longer acceptable, especially in schools, and politicians who do not agree are going to have organized and audible opposition.

A local incarnation of the March for Our Lives, a movement started by survivors of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting that left 17 people dead in Parkland, Florida, Feb. 14, took place at the intersection of Routes 347 and 112 in Port Jefferson Station March 24. While thousands stomped through Washington, D.C., and countless other areas across the globe, several hundred gathered locally, thanks to the organizing efforts of students from Miller Place, Port Jefferson, Ward Melville and other area high schools, to call on politicians to take action to prevent gun violence in schools and communities. Activist organizations The North Country Peace Group, Long Island Rising, Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America and Building Bridges in Brookhaven assisted the high schoolers in setting up the demonstration.

Calls for legislative action in speeches and on signs ranged from all-encompassing bans of “assault style” weapons seen abroad, like in Australia; to the more incremental policy changes being discussed in state houses and on the federal level, such as raising the minimum age to purchase firearms from 18 to 21; to bans on modifiers that make semi-automatic weapons function like automatic weapons; stronger background checks; and longer waiting periods for purchases.

“We are infused with a passion for change — change that we hope will drain the stagnant pool of corruption in our nation,” Miller Place High School student Jake Angelo said to the crowd. “We are the hope for our country’s future — the generation of awareness, the generation of calling ‘B.S.’ and the generation of change.”

Nearly all of the student speakers directed their remarks at U.S. 1st Congressional District Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) and the National Rifle Association, the powerful lobbying arm whose political contributions are often criticized as the deterrent to advancing gun legislation by those who lean to the political left. Zeldin received nearly $10,000 in campaign contributions from the NRA during his reelection campaign in 2016, according to campaign finance watchdog OpenSecrets.org.

“Change does not happen when the leaders deem it so,” Ward Melville High School student Scott Egnor said. “Change happens when every day folks say that enough is enough. Change happens when every day folks draw the line. Change happens when we vote Lee Zeldin out. We will take this movement, by Americans, for Americans, and we will bring it to the doors of the capital. We will not stop until Congress is more afraid of our voice than the NRA checkbooks.”

A spokeswoman for Zeldin Katie Vincentz said in an email the Congressman has and will continue to meet with those on both sides of the gun control debate, when asked if he planned to meet with any of the NY-1 students behind the Port Jeff Station march. She said Zeldin supports banning bump stocks, fixing the National Criminal Instant Background Check System and “ensuring lunatics manifesting violent criminal intentions to murder with firearms have access to none,” among other changes widely regarded as incremental gun control steps. She did not say whether or not he would support a ban on assault-style weapons when asked.

“The more people of all ages participating the better,” Vincentz said when asked how Zeldin viewed the activism of students in his district and beyond.

A speaker who identified herself as Ariana, a sophomore at Longwood High School, also invoked Zeldin during her remarks.

“Why should 15 year olds have to discuss the possibility of dying at the hands of a mass shooter?” she said. “Why should we be discussing dying in school, a place where we’re supposed to be safe and protected? And what can we expect from politicians like Lee Zeldin? Apparently only prayers and condolences. Congress is not taking the necessary steps to keep students like me and my friends safe — or the 5 year olds in kindergarten, or the 11 year olds in middle school. That’s why we are here. We cannot wait for the adults in Congress to continue to let the NRA call the shots when it comes to our safety. These politicians are not listening to us because we are supposedly too young to know what’s good for us, but apparently their silence is what’s best. Or perhaps the issue here is special interests and the money they receive is more important to them than our lives.”

Many of the parents of student speakers and participants in attendance expressed how proud of their children they were.

“It’s honestly the most proud that I’ve ever been of them,” said Kathy Podair, whose daughter Emma and frienf Alyssa Anderson, Smithtown High School West students, were among the marchers. “I’ve raised them to be strong women and to speak out against things that are wrong and that need to change. To see them take that initiative and stand up, I feel like I did a good job. I’m very proud of them today.”

She called sending a student off to high school in today’s world “terrifying.”

“They had a lockdown drill last week,” she said. “We got an email from the superintendent in the morning letting us know that there will be an unannounced lockdown drill today, and they came home from school and told me they were in the choir room when it happened, in a room that doesn’t have a lock on the [glass] door, and they said ‘we were sitting ducks if this was real.’ There were 150 kids in this room and they said ‘there’s nowhere safe for us to hide.’”

Port Jefferson High School students Ben Zaltsman and Matt Pifko, who helped organize an indoor assembly that took place March 14 on the day a national walkout was scheduled, along with classmate Gavin Barret, also spoke during the event. The trio said they were inspired by the solidarity they felt from seeing so many of their peers in attendance. The students helped establish a station in the high school that will remain open at which their peers can get assistance in writing letters to elected representatives.

Suffolk County Legislator Kara Hahn (D-Setauket) and State Assemblyman Steve Englebright (D-Setauket) were also among the attendees.

“It is amazing to see the passion, the dedication, the commitment of these students — no fear,” Hahn said. “It is wonderful. They are focused, they are determined, they are smart and they’re getting things done already. And we need to follow their lead.”

A smaller group of counter protestors stood across the street on Route 347 holding signs in support of the Second Amendment, with several Suffolk County Police Department officers and their cars positioned on the median to separate the two groups, though no violence and minimal interaction occurred.

A package of gun control bills passed the New York State Assembly in March and will require passage by the Republican-majority state senate before becoming law. All of the students asked said they intend to vote in the next election, or the first one after their 18th birthday. Organizers from the various activist groups had a table set up during the march to help register attendees to vote.

Port Jefferson High School. File photo by Elana Glowatz

How to spend taxpayer dollars has been a hot-button issue in Port Jefferson during the current school year, and the tragic shooting in Parkland, Florida, in February that killed 17 people has only added more things to think about for residents and school officials alike.

The district is currently working with a $44.9 million budget draft that rolls over all programs and accounts for mandated contractual and benefit increases from the current year. The proposed spending plan for 2018-19 is 3.65 percent higher than the 2017-18 budget. The current draft makes up for the additional costs with a 2.27 percent increase to the tax levy, meaning taxpayers will be supplying about $807,000 of additional revenue next year, with the remaining increase covered by a 1.46 percent estimated increase in state aid. That number won’t be final until April.

Budget highlights
  • Current draft stands at $44,917,348 for total operating budget
  • 3.65 percent increase in 2018-19 compared to current year
  • Additional expenses would be covered with 2.27 percent tax levy increase and 1.46 percent state aid increase
  • All programs rolled over from current year in next year’s budget
  • Expense increase largely due to contractual raises and increasing health insurance costs

District taxpayers voted down a $30 million bond proposal in December, which would have set aside money to address capital projects to upgrade facilities and infrastructure in each of Port Jeff’s school buildings and administrative office spaces over a 15-year span. The proposed capital bond would have allowed for the building of security vestibules in the high school and elementary school, moved high school classes taking place in portables into the main building and created a more strategic location for the middle school main office, among many other projects. Now, district administration is working to address the most pressing projects within the annual budget and using reserves.

A little more than $800,000 has been allocated toward the district’s capital reserves, and administration is seeking community input to help decide what projects should be addressed with the money if the budget passes, because voters must approve specific uses for capital reserve dollars. Superintendent Paul Casciano said during a March 22 public meeting it would be a challenge figuring out what to address among the district’s pressing needs.

“We had included in discussions prior, but since the unfortunate school shooting down in Parkland, Florida, [safety] has become a real priority throughout the Island, throughout the state and throughout the country,” he said.

“We want to bring our facilities into the 21st century in terms of learning opportunities for our students.”

— Paul Casciano

Prior to the shooting, the list of projects slated to be addressed using the $800,000 included $330,000 for renovations to the high school gymnasium lobby bathrooms, $260,000 for vestibules at the high school and elementary school, $43,000 to make Americans with Disabilities Act compliant fixes to the high school track for and $170,000 for classroom reconfiguration. Since the shooting, administration put together a new list of suggestions, which includes the vestibules, track fixes and relocation of the middle school office for a total $500,000.

“I like option two, of the two of them,” resident Renee Tidwell said.

The district is in the process of assembling a committee of community members to assist Port Jeff in developing a long-range vision for facilities improvement projects after the budget season, tentatively called the “super schools team.”

“There are a number of things that need to be done,” Casciano said. “We have some aging facilities, we have security needs. We want to bring our facilities into the 21st century in terms of learning opportunities for our students.”

Community input for security enhancement ideas included a system requiring visitors to present and leave identification with security personnel prior to entering school buildings and surveillance of the edge of school grounds. The district already has capital reserve money set aside for a multi-year roof-repair project, which will continue in the upcoming school year. About $1 million will go toward repairing two sections of the high school roof in 2018-19.

“The idea was to get our roofs on a cycle so that we’re not spending it all in the same time period,” board Vice President Mark Doyle said during the meeting of the reserves that had been set aside for roof repairs five years ago.

The board of education’s finance committee will hold a public meeting April 9 before the general board of education meeting April 10, where a budget hearing will take place and a budget will be adopted. The vote will be held May 15 at Earl L. Vandermeulen High School. Polls will be open from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m.

A student-led movement calling for gun control legislation has reached Port Jefferson. Stock photo

The national walkout planned for March 14 came and went in Port Jefferson, and students stayed indoors. However kids from both Port Jefferson and Comsewogue school districts didn’t sit out of the gun control conversation playing out across the United States.

As discussions of a national movement sprung up in early March calling for students across the United States to at once exit school buildings beginning at 10 a.m. as a form of protest in response to the shooting that killed 17 people in Florida in February, administrators across the North Shore grappled with the idea of allowing students to demonstrate without punishment and the possible dangers associated with walking out of school.

Officials from both districts elected to schedule indoor assemblies to discuss school violence and gun control, encouraging students not to physically walkout of buildings.

“We want students who choose to be involved to have a focus for their efforts, so the day and time will be meaningful,” Port Jeff Superintendent Paul Casciano said ahead of plans being finalized.

What eventually unfolded in Port Jeff, after collaboration between administration and students, was an assembly in the auditorium open to all students, in which victims of the shooting were honored, and then attendees were given the opportunity to deliver remarks that were approved by the administration prior to the event, according to students Gavin Barrett and Matt Pifko. The pair are among a group of students who both operate @pjhswalkout, an Instagram account which has served to organize those in the district interested in becoming more organized and vocal on gun control and overall school safety, and also participated in collaborating on the March 14 events with school officials, including Principal Christine Austen.

March For Our Lives to take place in PJS

By Alex Petroski

In accordance with the call to action issued by survivors of the mass school shooting in Parkland, Florida, a local March For Our Lives rally will take place in Port Jefferson Station at the intersection of Routes 112 and 347 March 24 from 1 to 3:30 p.m., according to representatives from the activists North Country Peace Group.

Students and families from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and others worldwide will take to the streets to demand action from elected officials to stem the escalation of gun violence and mass shootings in the nation’s schools. The Port Jefferson Station gathering is one of more than 650 events planned for that day.

The students and their parents are sponsoring the rally with help from The North Country Peace Group, Long Island Rising, Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America and Building Bridges in Brookhaven. Two of those groups, Building Bridges and Moms Demand, were formed specifically in response to gun shootings.

The organizers said all are welcome to attend the Port Jefferson Station rally. To participate in the program (priority will be given to students) or to learn more about the event, contact ncpeaceg@gmail.com.

“I thought the assembly was a respectful balance of honoring the victims of the Parkland shooting and providing the students in attendance with an opportunity to bring awareness to the #Enough movement,” Austen said after the event.

Barrett and Pifko said the assembly had outcomes they viewed as both positive and negative, but overall applauded administration for its efforts in creating an environment in which students could express their views.

“I personally was able to share a lot of what I wanted to say,” Barrett said.

He added that an aspect of the planning was also to afford a platform to a friend with more conservative political leanings pertaining to gun control.

“Whatever people took away from our message, we were able to give them that freely and the school did let us speak freely on that front,” Pifko said. “We were able to inject political stances on it and genuine intent.”

The pair said they took issue with the conclusion of the assembly, which featured several faculty members reading an open letter purported to have been written by an educator that went viral on social media as news of a walkout swirled. The message of the letter was that rather than walking out of school, students should walk up to classmates viewed as outcasts in an effort to create a more inclusive school environment, a sentiment both students said they could get behind. But Barrett and Pifko said they weren’t aware the letter would be read, and while they could agree with the overall sentiment, they did not appreciate that the letter had a condescending tone, and included the line “Gun control or more laws is not, and will not, be the answer,” and felt the reading constituted faculty taking a political stand.

“The message of the letter was inclusivity; we want to encourage our students to make positive connections with one another in order to foster a welcoming school climate,” Austen said.

The students were clear to point out they don’t believe in tearing up the Second Amendment, but rather have a simpler political message and goal to their activism, which they said they plan to continue beyond the already-scheduled upcoming national demonstrations.

“We feel that students should be educated on the truth about gun legislation and gun control in a clear, concise and accurate manner,” Pifko said. “I think we educated people. We’re trying to create a discussion among peers.”

A station was also set up in the school where students were assisted in penning letters to members of Congress to express opinions on gun control. Barrett and Pifko said they also are trying to organize a group of students to travel to Manhattan March 24 to participate in New York’s version of March for Our Lives, a sister march to one taking place in Washington, D.C., the same day.

“One way or another these shootings have to stop,” Barrett said.

Ben Zaltsman, the school’s student body president, said he thought the assembly went perfectly and struck a good balance between memorial and political activism.

“I think the entire service was well balanced,” he said.

Comsewogue High School Principal Joe Coniglione and Deputy Superintendent Jennifer Quinn did not respond to questions asking what was being planned on the 14th or how the day played out after the fact, but Quinn said administration was working with students on an event.

Maddy Glass, a student at Comsewogue High School, said in a text message that like Port Jeff, students in Comsewogue were encouraged to participate in the district plans rather than exiting the building, which included an auditorium assembly. Glass and about 30 of her peers were granted permission by Coniglione to exit the assembly at 10 a.m. and head to the gymnasium, where students observed a moment of silence and made phone calls to the offices of local elected officials to voice their opinions on gun control.

“I felt like the assembly got to what we needed to in some places, but not the way we really needed,” Glass said. “A walkout would’ve brought everyone together in a different way, but since our ‘walkout’ to the gym was only about 30 of us it still felt like students were divided.”

She said she also realized administrators were in a difficult position in deciding how to handle the day, and appreciated the efforts made to allow students to express their opinions. Glass also said she hoped the outcome of increased activism amongst her peers would be Congress implementing actions to stop mass shootings.

“I’ve never been the type of kid who loved school, but I felt like I had some safety there, and with all of these school shootings and knowing people affected by them, I don’t feel as safe as I used to,” she said. “And I know I’m not the only one who feels that way.”

Gov. Andrew Cuomo. File photo by Erika Karp

As students and districts deal with the aftermath of a nationwide student walkout March 14, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) has made it clear where he stands on punishments for those who participated.

“Peaceful expression of views on controversial issues that is not disruptive or threatening is a right that all students have in this country, and any attempts to stifle this speech violates the constitutional rights of students and faculty to free speech,” Cuomo said in part in an open letter to New York State Education Department Commissioner MaryEllen Elia in an open letter March 15. “Threatening to discipline students for participating in the peaceful demonstrations is not only inappropriate, it is unconstitutional. Reports that schools may also discipline faculty are also highly concerning and would send a terrible message to our students.”

Students from several North Shore schools — including Ward Melville High School, Rocky Point High School and Northport High School — participated in the national walkout inspired by the political activism stemming from a Feb. 14 shooting at a school in Parkland, Florida that killed 17 people. Many of the survivors from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida spearheaded what became a national movement. Students in other districts — like Port Jefferson High School and Harborfields High School — participated in school-approved indoor memorials and remembrances which also included outlets for students to express their views on gun control legislation. Many school districts issued warnings prior to March 14 that participating students would face disciplinary action. Elia was publicly supportive of the walkouts prior to March 14.

Michelle Salz, the mother of a Rocky Point Middle School student, said she will be joining with a group of parents who have come together to fight the suspensions legally.

“I am infuriated that the school is not allowing my straight A honors student, who is the president of her student council and the president of the national junior honor society, to exercise her First Amendment right to free speech,” she said. “It is disgraceful that our school district is choosing to penalize our activist students instead of embracing this event as a teaching opportunity.”

Cuomo’s letter its entirety:

Dear Commissioner Elia,

Yesterday, I proudly stood shoulder to shoulder with brave students and faculty who spoke out against gun violence. History provides moments where real change is possible, and the thousands of students who participated in organized walk-outs all throughout the state are seizing the moment and admirably standing up for the safety of their classmates and students across the country.

In the last 24 hours, there have been several reports of New York State schools disciplining students and faculty for participating in yesterday’s historic events to stop gun violence. In at least one disturbing incident, it was reported that the school physically blocked the exits to prevent students from demonstrating.

These actions send a terrible message to New York’s children and are against constitutional free speech protections. I call on you to use SED’s authority to stop these schools, reverse course and cease any disciplinary actions.

Peaceful expression of views on controversial issues that is not disruptive or threatening is a right that all students have in this country, and any attempts to stifle this speech violates the constitutional rights of students and faculty to free speech. Threatening to discipline students for participating in the peaceful demonstrations is not only inappropriate, it is unconstitutional. Reports that schools may also discipline faculty are also highly concerning and would send a terrible message to our students.

The students who participated in the walk-out are trying to advance laws and actions that would save their lives, and many viewed their participation as necessary to their own safety. The scourge of mass shootings in schools is very real, and these students were taking proactive steps to protect themselves and their classmates. These actions, coupled with the peaceful manner in which the demonstrations were conducted, is something that should be lauded, not punished.

Additionally, I call on you to thoroughly investigate any reports of schools that blocked the exits to physically prevent students from leaving during the event. This an egregious safety violation and it is also unlawful.

Yesterday’s actions were a testament to the courage and leadership of New York’s students. As I said yesterday, these young people are showing more leadership than the so-called leaders in Washington. To punish or discipline them is inconsistent with the freedom of expression that we cherish. It would say more about the adults imposing discipline than it would about the students who exercised their rights to speak out.

Sincerely,

Governor Andrew M. Cuomo

Desirée Keegan contributed reporting

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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.

Ward Melville students are planning a walkout March 14 to remember the Parkland, Florida, shooting victims and to support new gun laws. Photo by Greg Catalano

Local students are planning to join others across the nation to ensure the voices of young people are heard when it comes to protesting gun violence in America and advocating for gun control.

Ward Melville High School students hope to participate in the March 14 walkout at 10 a.m. for 17 minutes to remember the 17 victims of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. The event would be held in conjunction with similar walkouts taking place in schools all over the United States.

“I believe it’s very important to be able to contribute to society because although we may not be able to vote until we’re 18, it’s still our country, and it’s still our future at stake. Students aren’t powerless, and we need to show other students that.”

— Maya Peña-Lobel

One of the student organizers, Maya Peña-Lobel, said it is important to speak out about gun violence in America. She said it is outrageous nothing has been done about gun control after the shootings at Columbine High School, Sandy Hook Elementary School and the Orlando nightclub shooting.

“I believe it’s very important to be able to contribute to society because although we may not be able to vote until we’re 18, it’s still our country, and it’s still our future at stake,” Peña-Lobel said. “Students aren’t powerless, and we need to show other students that.”

Peña-Lobel along with fellow student organizers Bennett Owens, Haley Linden, Marielle Leiboff, Charlotte O’Dell and Noah Mond met with the high school’s Principal Alan Baum March 2 to discuss the walkout.

“It was a good meeting overall,” Owens said. “We planned originally on walking out of the front entrance but over safety concerns, [Baum] would rather us walk out of the north side entrance, which is the gym entrance. It wasn’t like his way was ridiculous in any way. Obviously, he had plans that we as students don’t, and he was looking out for our safety.”

Owens, a senior, said if plans were to be approved school security would also be on hand for the 17-minute event, and said he hopes students would not receive any disciplinary action for participating as long as they remain civil. Owens said he was working on inviting a speaker to address the crowd, and there will also be a moment of silence. Teachers who are unable to participate would be given orange ribbons to show their support.

“The district is working on a plan in concert with building administration and the board of education regarding this matter,” district spokeswoman Jessica Novins said in a statement March 5 when asked about the event. “Once finalized, the plans will be communicated to students and parents.”

Many parents in the district, like Mike Ferrara, are concerned about the walkout. He said he supports the students’ rights to peacefully assemble and their freedom of speech and believes it’s a teachable moment. But he said he also believes it should be done outside of school hours. The parent said he hopes the board of education will evaluate the decision and consider potential future ramifications.

“Where our responsibility lies as parents and school officials is to provide guidance as to when and where their protests occur and that they are respectfully executed.”

— Mike Ferrara

“Where our responsibility lies as parents and school officials is to provide guidance as to when and where their protests occur and that they are respectfully executed,” Ferrara said. “In my opinion, it is not appropriate that our children be allowed, even encouraged, to walk out during school hours. The impact of their statement will become divisive and disruptive if that is the case. It will also be viewed by many as an endorsement by our school district of a particular position on the issues. For example, if a group of students organized a walkout in support of restrictions on abortions, I believe it is highly unlikely that it would be allowed. Allowing walkouts to make political statements of any kind may open doors that can never be closed.”

Other parents, including local political activist Shoshana Hershkowitz, support the students in their decision.

“As a parent and educator, I think that the walkout is an excellent lesson for students about civil disobedience and the First Amendment,” she said. “This type of action is a cornerstone of the anti-war movement, the civil rights movement and women’s suffrage. The students are seeking change, and this is a way to express that desire. My hope for these students is that they will continue their quest for change with civic engagement.”

Peña-Lobel said the response so far from students has been positive. She said while many of her friends have similar beliefs to her, those with contrasting opinions on guns have been respectful of the participants planning to peacefully stand up for their beliefs.

Organizers have been sharing information on the Instagram account @wmhs_walkout. The account had more than 250 followers as of March 5. Peña-Lobel said it’s important for them to spread the word about the walkout and get as many supporters as possible.

“We want to be taken seriously,” Peña-Lobel said. “This isn’t a joke. This is a real thing about real people’s lives, and it could really happen anywhere and at any time.”

On March 8, students met with Baum once more to be told of the district’s decision. After administrators met with a lawyer, it was decided that students would not be allowed to participate in a walkout.

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We’ve been here before. A shooter kills and maims unarmed, innocent American citizens, and according to the people elected to represent us, it’s never quite the right time to discuss gun control.

House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wisconsin) told us last week, now “is not the time to jump to some conclusion,” adding the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, was not about guns, but about “pure evil.”

We’re glad students from the high school have rebuked Ryan and his ilk who, as a church sign in Australia put it over the weekend, “love guns more than their kids.” If students who experienced the horror in Florida Feb. 14 firsthand are ready to talk about change, we’re with them.

However, we’ll go along with the speaker’s flawed premise and offer some thoughts about the latest mass shooting in the United States without politicizing the discussion:

• First, let’s honor the heroes who put themselves in harm’s way, some, making the ultimate sacrifice for their colleagues and classmates. While many have heard of teacher Scott Beigel, 35, who grew up in Dix Hills and died shielding students from gunfire, have you heard of Anthony Borges? Anthony is a 15-year-old student fighting for his life who saved 20 lives as he attempted to close and lock a classroom door. He was shot five times — in both legs, his upper left thigh and his back. His thigh bone was shattered.

• Are all threats taken seriously? A neighbor reported the shooter’s social media account to the FBI in January, making note of his “gun ownership, desire to kill people, erratic behavior and disturbing social media posts, as well as the potential of him conducting a school shooting,” a statement from the FBI read. But nothing was done. Every single hostile message, no matter how small, needs to be noted and handled accordingly. Police need to investigate every threat or mention of harm or disturbance, while schools and their therapists should monitor every student suspect from then on out.

• We are extremely impressed by the grace and maturity students from the high school have displayed in their public thoughts on the tragedy. Lasting change being brought about by young voices should be what America is all about. While many had lost hope, grieving students cried out. Yes, it was a terrible tragedy that should never have happened, as is said each and every time a mass shooting occurs, but again nothing is being done. This is why there are plans for a March For Our Lives stomp on March 24 in Washington, D.C., where the people will bring the power. “We are up here standing together, because if all our government and president can do is send thoughts and prayers, then it’s time for the victims to be the change that we need to see,” said 18-year-old Emma González. We admire the Parkland high school senior, and the many other students who took to podiums to voice their opinions, concerns and anger. They have a right to be mad, and even more, a right to be heard. David Hogg, a 17-year-old student who survived the shooting, had a similar, strong message to legislators: “Politicians and more importantly the American public must take action if we’re going to prevent the next shooting. To elected officials I say this, ‘Don’t lie to us. Don’t make any more false promises, because when you do, children die.’” He called the time a turning point in American history “where students stand up and speak out — when the politicians won’t.” We hope to see that happen. In the face of division, standing up is not for any political agenda but for the lives of the innocent, like young school children.

As Emma González said, and, yes, now we’ll talk about guns: “They say that tougher gun laws do not decrease gun violence. We call B.S.” So do we, Emma.

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.”

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