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Parkland Shooting

We’ve reached a period of outrageous outrageousness. Or maybe extremes of extremism.

I read recently about an advertisement by a beer company that seems overtly racist.

Now, I’m not going to name the company because that might accomplish what it could have been attempting in the first place, which is to get its brand name in front of people.

This company has caused quite a stir by linking the color of beer to its quality, which in turn is linked to race in the ad.

What’s happening in the country? Have we reached the stage where all news is good news?

We live in a world of such polarization, so many shrill messages and such a rapid news cycle that you almost have to be outrageous and ridiculous to get attention and to remain in the public’s eye for more than just a moment.

It’s not an unprecedented phenomenon. Borrowing from the fictional world, poor Roxie Hart from the show “Chicago” is “the name on everyone’s lips,” as the song goes. But then, once the gripping trial ends, the newest crime of passion captivates the city’s attention, relegating Roxie to a less prominent place in the
dramas of the Windy City.

In our real world, which sometimes seems to require a reality check, people doubt everything. Why, just the other year, the current president questioned the national origin of the previous one.

Doubt and cynicism are all by-products of a shrill time where people shout alternative facts from
the rooftops.

And to bring matters up to speed, current politicians are questioning the motives of the Parkland
shooting survivors. Some suggest that left-leaning people who want to take away everyone’s guns are manipulating America’s youth. These students are not too young to die, but are somehow considered too young to have formed such an energized national movement.

Are people becoming more extreme with their time, with their emotions and with their donations? Yes, without a doubt. As the ancient Greek physician Hippocrates suggested, “desperate times call for desperate measures.” He was describing the response to life-threatening diseases and not to people who feel their lives are threatened leaving their homes.

As Long Island native Billy Joel sang in 1989, “we didn’t start the fire.” While that’s true, and people have lived through periods of considerable instability and uncertainty, we are living in a time defined by extremes.

At some point, We the People have to decide what we can accept and what we can’t. That beer advertisement seems to be a cheap ploy put together by a cynical advertising executive, who has now pulled the ad after it may have served its purpose.

Maybe this executive got his or her wish and more. Not only are people talking about it, but the company may also not have to pay as much for the ad, because now they’re not running it anymore.

How do we combat such unacceptable messages and decide when a company has crossed the red line? One possible solution is to follow the example of the United States government. When other countries create intolerable situations for their citizens or our citizens or the world, we start by hitting these nations in their wallets and refuse to buy their products.

Maybe a decline in sales at a company would send the kind of message that defeats the notion that all press is good press. Other cynical executives might get the message if the stock price or sales fell after such an advertisement polluted the company’s image. With our consumer decisions, we can send messages that it’s not OK to be offensive and outrageous just to sell another product or a toxic idea.

Residents at the Town of Huntington's vigil for Dix Hills native Scott Beigel. Photo by Kevin Redding

Scott Beigel was a beloved teacher, coach and son, and on Feb. 14, he became a hometown hero.

The Florida school shooting hit close to home for Huntington residents, who joined together inside Town Hall March 14 for a candlelight vigil in honor of the Dix Hills native. Beigel died protecting students from danger as a geography teacher at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland.

Beigel, 35, who graduated from Half Hollow Hills East, was one of 17 killed during the tragedy. He was shot while attempting to lock his classroom door after holding it open for students fleeing from the gunman. Beigel had only been teaching at Parkland for six months, but also served as the high school’s cross-country coach.

“[Scott] was a hero not just on the day he died but every day of his life, to his students and the people whose lives he often helped,” Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone (D) said. “We have unfortunately seen these incidents happen far too many times … but I do truly believe that Scott’s death and what happened in Parkland is something that will change this country. His heroism will change our country and save many, many lives. That will be his legacy.”

Michael Schulman and Linda Beigel Schulman. Photo by Kevin Redding

During the ceremony, Beigel was remembered for his “goofball” sense of humor, selflessness and a true love for his job and the students he taught.

Prior to working in Florida, he was a camp counselor and division leader at Camp Starlight in Pennsylvania and a volunteer teacher for underprivileged children in South Africa.

Half Hollow Hills Superintendent Patrick Harrigan said in honor of Beigel, students at the local high schools have implemented a 17 acts of kindness initiative to improve the culture of their environment and make an effort to prevent another senseless tragedy from occurring.

“Scott was a new teacher, only six months into his tenure, and already making a difference every day for his students,” Harrigan said. “As an educator, it is my hope that Mr. Beigel’s lasting legacy is as a child advocate, a teacher, a coach and an inspiration to other teachers to always improve the lives of their students and the children in their communities.”

Looking up at a large photo of her son, Beigel’s mother Linda Beigel Schulman held back tears and said, “I love you Scott … you will forever be my inspiration and hero.”

She called to action the need for gun control legislation including universal background checks before purchasing a firearm; a ban on assault rifles and high-capacity magazines; and an increase in the minimum gun-buying age from 18 to 21. She also commended students who participated in the National School Walkout.

“We need action now and we will continue to be heard,” Beigel Schulman said. “When Scott was a child and came home from school, I worried about what kind of a day he would have; I did not worry about if he was going to come home from school.”

Beigel Schulman then turned to look upon a photograph of her son again.

“You may have died senselessly, but as I stand here today, I can honestly say not in vain,” she said. “It has been one month and I promise I will not stop until no child ever has to fear going to school, being with their friends at school and learning from their teachers [at school].”

A street sign that will rename Hart Place in honor of Dix Hills native Scott Beigel. Photo by Kevin Redding

Supervisor Chad Lupinacci (R) unveiled the new street sign renaming Hart Place, where Beigel grew up and where his parents still reside, to become Scott J. Beigel Way.

Tragedies such as Parkland, Lupinacci said, “especially touch home when you have someone that grew up here, went to the high school, went to many of the same stores we go to … We thought it very fitting for where he grew up and spent his formative years to be renamed in his honor.”

The supervisor said a proper ceremony for the street renaming will take place in the upcoming weeks.

“We just want Scott’s voice and legacy to live on — we don’t want him to ever be forgotten,” said Melissa Zech, Beigel’s sister. “I think he would be so proud and I know we’re so proud of him. ― He was so smart, quick-witted, caring and loving. These are things I wish I would’ve told him when he was here.”

Michael Schulman, Beigel’s father, also spoke of the honor.

“This took us all by surprise,” he said. “It’s a great acknowledgement of what this town meant to him, and what he meant to the town. Right now, the street sign is something that’s bittersweet, but, in the years to come, it’ll just be sweet. I just wish we didn’t have to have it.”

Huntington Town Board is expected to formally vote on renaming Hart Place in Beigel’s memory at its March 20 meeting. Lupinacci also said the new street sign would be put on public display for area residents to see.

By Fr. Francis Pizzarelli

Father Frank

How many more mass shootings have to claim innocent lives before we have the courage to stand up for justice and common sense?

The rhetoric that has erupted since the Parkland shootings in Florida is reprehensible. Innocent lives murdered, hundreds of survivors suffering from PTSD and we still cannot move forward with common sense federal regulations to protect all of us as citizens without infringing on someone’s Second Amendment rights.

The articulate, dynamic students from Parkland have given clear voice to the real issues that must be addressed since the massacre — thorough background checks on all who purchase guns, a national registry for all guns and their owners, raising the age to 21 for the purchase of any gun with few exceptions, banning assault weapons with the exception for law enforcement and the military and developing a standardized mental health screening to flag those with potential mental health issues.

Our schools are vulnerable, but as a longtime educator and former school administrator, arming teachers and increasing police presence with weapons is not going to deter a mentally ill person from killing people, if he or she is determined to do that.

We need to be more efficient and effective at identifying students who demonstrate by behavior, school deportment and their writing that there is a real problem.

Every difficult student cannot merely be expelled from school. We need to work with those at-risk students. However, that really becomes a problem every time a school district is on austerity. The first people who are laid off are school social workers, psychologists, nurse teachers and other support staff that are critical in the time of crisis.

Instead of building up an armed security force, we should build up our support services so that they can effectively intervene with the growing number of students who are at risk.

After Parkland, all the politicians from the president on down have talked about doing more to strengthen mental health services. However, our own president has reduced funding from his budget to support mental health services. His opioid commission made substantial recommendations to fight this national health crisis, but to date he has not allocated a dime to support new treatment initiatives and support services for addicts and their families.

The young people from Parkland have sparked a powerful new conversation across our country that speaks beyond the issue of gun control and gun safety. Their courageous voices are challenging us to come together as a nation, urging us to work together to protect all life because it is sacred and fragile. We need to start practicing what we preach!

Divisive and demeaning rhetoric is not going to make America great again; only constructive action on the part of all Americans will. Every citizen who is of age must register to vote. We must do our homework and know what the real issues are all about and not allow ourselves to be brainwashed by political operatives. Our political process and system is broken and ineffective. It needs immediate surgery!

We need to urge the best of the best to run for public office. We must be sure that they are not connected or beholden to the insurance industry, the NRA, the unions, just to name a few powerful entities that seem to be indirectly controlling our nation and its policies.

As Gandhi once said, we must “be the change we wish to see in the world.”

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

Students at Northport High School sat silently for 17 minutes during the national walkout. Photo from Aidan Bryant

Hundreds of Northport High School students walked out March 14 in hopes that their actions would speak louder than words.

Senior Ryan Dowling, student organizer of the walkout to pay tribute to the Parkland, Florida students and faculty killed in the school shooting one month ago, said she estimated between 200 to 300 students quietly left the building to sit in the front courtyard at 10 a.m. Wednesday morning in unified action with thousands across the country.

Students at Northport High School sat silently for 17 minutes during the national walkout. Photo from Juliana Conforti

“We decided that 17 minutes of silence was the best way to go,” Dowling said. “The point was to remember the 17 lives that were lost and to show we didn’t have to say anything to make our voices heard.”

There were no speeches given, no chanting and no homemade signs calling for gun control or legislation. Only a singular black banner with the word “Enough” written across it in white duct tape stood with the students. Those who didn’t walkout were seen photographing and videotaping the event from classroom windows, according to Dowling.

“I think that everyone was respectful and mature about it,” student participant Samantha Sanuki said. “I had a fear of it becoming political with those who disagreed with the walkout — those people who were sharing their political views.”

On their way back inside the building, Dowling and Sanuki said the participants encountered other students holding Trump banners or wearing pro-Trump T-shirts. Both say the atmosphere remained largely respectful in attempt to not disrupt those classes still in session.

Students at Northport High School gather outside the school during the national walkout. Photo from Juliana Conforti

Superintendent Robert Banzer and high school principal Daniel Danbusky had a meeting with the student organizers of the walkout prior to March 14, in which any student who considered participating was initially warned they could face up to three-day suspension for walking out without permission, according to Dowling.

“My parents were supportive of me when I made the decision to try to spearhead this movement,” she said. “My mom was encouraging me saying, ‘I think you should walk out, and if no one is starting the conversation, I believe you should it start it yourself.’”

Days before the event, the senior said Danbusky contacted the student organizers and participants would be considered cutting class for the period. It carries a considerably lighter punishment, a phone call or email to notify the student’s parents, according to Dowling.

“The students — those who decided to walk out and those who decided to stay in class — handled the matter with respect and dignity,” Banzer said in a statement. “Regardless of the decision they made, I am very proud of all of them for that.”

Rocky Point High School students walk out March 14 to join in the national protest against gun violence in schools. Photo from Kevin Redding

By Kevin Redding

“Books not bullets!” “We want change!”

A group of nearly 30 students shouted these words from behind the front gates of Rocky Point High School between 10 a.m. and 10:17 a.m. March 14, demanding stricter gun legislation to help put an end to school violence one month after the Parkland, Florida, shooting left 17 students and faculty members dead.

Rocky Point High School students walk out March 14 to join in the national protest against gun violence in schools. Photo from Kevin Redding

The Rocky Point high schoolers were among thousands across the country who took part in the school walkout demonstration during the time frame.

The district issued a letter to parents last week that any student who chooses to participate in the movement via exiting the high school will be “subject to administrative action.” Requests for what the repercussions might be were not immediately returned.

Students waved signs that read “Our voices deserve to be heard,” “I will not be a statistic” and “School is for learning, not target practice” as passing cars honked in support.

“We want legislators to take action against all assault weapons,” said senior Jade Pinkenburg, one of the organizers of the event. “We don’t want guns in our schools and want to feel safe within our schools. That’s what we’re doing this for.”

Rocky Point High School students walk out March 14 to join in the national protest against gun violence in schools. Photo from Kevin Redding

Senior Bernard Sanchez said students should be allowed to have more of a voice.

“You can’t sacrifice the First Amendment to try to protect the Second,” Sanchez said. “Court cases have proven time and time again that we don’t give away every choice we have when we enter a school.”

Jade Pinkenburg’s father Chris said that the students involved in the protest attempted to meet with Superintendent Michael Ring at the start of the week but “nothing happened.”

“No Rocky Point student will be permitted to leave the premises as part of any of these upcoming events or otherwise, without appropriate permission, whether on March 14 or at any time during school hours throughout the school year,” Ring wrote in last week’s letter.

Chris Pinkenburg stood by and said he supports the students despite the district’s disapproval.

“I think it’s a very good thing,” his father said. “Obviously the adults don’t have any solutions, so I hope this will bring about great change. It’s time.”

Parents also speak of concerns of notification of recent school threat

Shoreham-Wading River High School is located at 250A Route 25A in Shoreham. File photo by Kevin Redding

At Shoreham-Wading River’s board of education meeting March 6, 11th grader Sarah Acerra took to the podium and spoke up in light of the recent Florida tragedy.

Shoreham-Wading River junior Sarah Acerra took to the podium during a recent board of education meeting to voice her concerns over school safety. Photo by Kevin Redding

“What is being done to make us students feel more safe?” Acerra asked board members.

The junior said she recalled a threat made by a student last year — Thursday, March 16, 2017 — via text message that “something might occur” at the high school. The student who sent the text was quickly identified and dealt with by the district and plans were put in place for locker and school bag searches the following school day. But Acerra, who said many of her peers stayed home upon hearing about the threat, did not feel safe when she arrived back at the high school the next day.

“I walked into school a little before 7 that morning — I remember it perfectly because nobody checked my bag and none of my friends’ bags were checked either,” she said. “So the rest of the day was very uneasy for all of us because we didn’t know what was going to happen. Even though the kid had been caught, there was no guarantee that there wasn’t anybody else involved with the threat.”

Another high school junior, Kathleen Loscalzo, spoke of her anxiety when it comes to who is able to enter the buildings. Loscalzo said she saw a former student, who moved to another state in seventh grade, in one of her classes this year. When asked if she recently moved back to Shoreham, the former student said, “No, I was visiting and they just let me in.”

“If someone my age who doesn’t go to school here just put on a backpack and walked in with everybody else, there would be no way [of knowing].”

— Kathleen Loscalzo

Loscalzo raised concerns over the student’s identification cards, which she said are not especially needed for anything except buying lunch in the cafeteria.

“I know many other schools have IDs they have to wear like a lanyard,” Loscalzo said. “If someone my age who doesn’t go to school here just put on a backpack and walked in with everybody else, there would be no way [of knowing].”

On the subject of social media threats, Jennifer Donnelly, a mother of a ninth-grader in the district, addressed a vague email sent out to parents by Poole on March 4 regarding a threat, which, according to the letter, was “investigated with the support of law enforcement who deemed the threat to not be criminal” and appropriate disciplinary actions were made.

“A lot of people, myself included, were really uncomfortable sending my kids to school after that,” Donnelly said asking for more clarification in these emergency emails. “There was nothing about who this threat was from, what the threat was, what the level of the threat was, what was done … And, with security being put in place, I feel like, ‘Well, what’s going to happen immediately tomorrow if someone comes through the door?’”

Superintendent Gerard Poole thanked both students and Donnelly for weighing in and assured them that the district has been reviewing and working toward strengthening its security and safety measures since before the Parkland, Florida shooting.

Shoreham-Wading River high school junior Kathleen Loscalzo said a former student was able to enter the building and visit a class of hers without being asked who she was upon entering the highs school. Photo by Kevin Redding

Frequent evacuation, lockdown and lockout drills currently take place throughout the year, and a combined $2 million investment over the past few has included security hardware additions and infrastructure improvements, like burglar alarm systems, enhanced video monitoring, elementary vestibules and School Active Violence Emergency (SAVE) hotlines installed in each building. Poole outlined to parents and students in attendance future projects to beef up security. These include:

  • Adding security guards in the high school; the district’s security supervisor said of arming them, “I think there’s a long laundry list of items that should be discussed in detail surrounding that — a legal piece, a training piece, a tactical piece. I know there’s an urgency to do something, but there’s a lot that needs to be done first.”
  • The construction of a high school vestibule to begin this spring with projected completion in summer 2020; the middle school vestibule will be completed this summer.
  • The installation of a Raptor Visitor Management System in all buildings this spring, a web-based monitoring software designed to track visitors and electronically check them against public databases.
  • The implementation of ballistic security film designed to prevent glass from shattering on impact and delay an intruder’s entry.
  • The consideration of metal detectors in the schools.

The district also recently completed a security audit and developed a “multi-pronged plan” for strong enhancement and has in place a recently-hired security consultant firm — Covert Operations — to enhance its plans, drills and overall preparedness in an emergency situation. The firm regularly reviews and improves security and safety measures.

“We are certainly in a strong position to ensure the safety of our students, staff and visitors,” Poole said.

Discussion also comes in wake of Parkland, Florida shootin

The Port Jefferson School District community attends a meeting in the high school auditorium on school safety Feb. 26. Photo by Alex Petroski

School districts and communities have been forced to reflect in the days since a shooter at a high school in Parkland, Florida killed 17 people.

Port Jefferson School District’s self-examination included a look at the reaction to a social media threat by a now former student the day after the Feb. 14 Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School tragedy. Improving school safety going forward, and a give-and-take between Superintendent Paul Casciano and concerned parents, highlighted a two-hour community meeting inside a packed Port Jefferson High School auditorium Feb. 26.

Casciano shared some details about the district’s handling of the student and the threat, which played out during the final days before mid-winter recess, frequently reminding attendees that he was not at liberty to discuss many of the factors that played into the timeline.

“He doesn’t have access to weapons.”

— James Strack

He said district administration became aware of a social media post at the end of the school day Feb. 15 when two students came forward with concerns.

“Although there was no indication that there was an imminent threat to the safety of our students and staff, we take any threat of violence very seriously, and we immediately contacted the police,” the superintendent said.

He said Suffolk County Police Department’s 6th Precinct thoroughly investigated the matter into the night of Feb. 15 and most of the day Feb. 16. He said information, much of which was false, has been spread by parents and members of the community, stemming from a parent.

“Since the investigation was still in progress, I was unable to get any information at that time,” Casciano said. “I was assured that there would be a police presence at the school the next day. We were allowing the 6th Precinct to do their work. We weren’t looking to start spreading the news.”

The superintendent sent out an email to district residents just before midnight Feb. 15 to let parents know a threat had been made, a law enforcement investigation was underway and that extra precautions would be taken to ensure students and staff felt safe during the Feb. 16 school day. He said he elected not to notify parents via a prerecorded phone message because of the late hour.

“Wake us up,” several parents said in response to Casciano’s rationale behind email notification as opposed to a phone call as to not disturb families.

“Although there was no indication that there was an imminent threat to the safety of our students and staff, we take any threat of violence very seriously, and we immediately contacted the police.”

— Paul Casciano

“I think vague is better than zero,” another parent responded to Casciano’s contention that the presence of an ongoing investigation tied his hands.

Many parents said during the meeting they didn’t see the message until after they had sent their children to school, and as erroneous rumors began spreading on social media of a lockdown or evacuation, parents began pulling students out of school. Casciano sent out a second email around 1 p.m. Feb. 16 with the stated mission in part to dispel a “firestorm” of rumors on social media pages frequented by district parents. The second communication reiterated that an investigation was ongoing, which prevented the superintendent from being able to fully brief parents on the situation and that the district buildings were safe.

“Your imagination tends to run a little wild, and I think that’s part of the reason why people were looking for an answer,” one parent said of the environment in the hours after rumors began to spread. “I think it would’ve been nice to get a little articulation from you before this.”

Casciano said at the time, he was advised by the SCPD that there was no credible threat of violence, a point that was backed up by 6th Precinct Police Captain James Strack, who attended the meeting and fielded a handful of parent questions.

“He doesn’t have access to weapons,” Strack stated when asked about the status of the investigation. He said the student and his family were extremely cooperative, and none of the evidence presented to the district attorney’s office met a criminal threshold.

Casciano said he was assured the student was supervised and “receiving proper care.” The student, who is not a Port Jefferson resident, attended by paying tuition, and was not arrested following the incident. The child will not be returning, though Casciano declined to specify if the decision was entirely the district’s.

“I’d like to think it was mutual,” he said.

In addressing increased safety options for the future, the superintendent was clear about a plan being discussed across the country, including at the highest levels of the United States government.

“Teachers with guns make me nervous.”

— Paul Casciano

“Teachers with guns make me nervous,” Casciano said. The sentiment was met with applause from the attendees.

The superintendent mentioned suggestions he’d received from parents, which included arming teachers. Other proposals included installation of bullet-proof windows, enhancing the number of security personnel, conducting backpack checks or banning them altogether, adding metal detectors, arming security guards and monitoring students’ social media accounts.

Casciano also detailed some of the safety practices the district employs, including shooter drills and training for staff and students and identification checks for visitors. He also stressed the district’s commitment to mental health awareness.

One parent, Karen Sullivan, pointed to Sandy Hook Promise, a nonprofit established by relatives of victims of the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, which offers support, strategies and suggestions to familiarize onself with signs that could indicate a student might be troubled.

“I recently signed up to be a promise leader,” she said. “I’ve been in contact with them over the last three or four days, and they have a slew of programs that would be free to our district. They are ready, willing and able to come here to help, and I’m offering my help and my support.”

Casciano said the district will review submitted suggestions as soon as possible while also examining the feasibility and practicality of any option before eventually submitting any further safety recommendations to the board of education.

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