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Port Jefferson School District

BOE candidates Ryan Biedenkapp, Mia Farina, Jason Kronberg, René Tidwell, Tracy Zamek and Ryan Walker. Photo by Alex Petroski

Six candidates have come forward to run for three vacant seats on the Port Jefferson School District Board of Education.

The three-year terms of trustees Tracy Zamek, Mark Doyle and Vincent Ruggiero expire this year, though only Zamek is seeking another term. She joined five other community members at the Port Jefferson High School auditorium April 24 for a meet-the-candidates event, hosted by the district’s three parent-teacher associations.

Doyle, who ran a write-in campaign when he was re-elected in 2015, said in an interview he will not seek a fourth term, citing growing professional obligations and a desire to have his seat filled by someone more able to offer up their time. Ruggiero did not respond to a request for comment sent to his school district email.

The candidates were asked six questions about relevant issues to the district — including the potential for lost revenue as Brookhaven Town and Port Jeff Village hammer out settlements with the Long Island Power Authority over an assessment dispute on its Port Jeff power plant — and education more broadly, and were allowed opening and closing statements. Each candidate also submitted personal bios to the administrators of the event, which were publicly distributed.

Meet the candidates

Tracy Zamek: She was first elected to the board in 2015. Zamek has lived in the district since 1996 and currently has two teens attending local schools. She is currently a fifth-grade teacher in the Hauppauge school district. She cited her desire for fiscal responsibility and to advocate for students as her reasons for running again.

“I believe every single student who attends Port Jefferson schools deserves a premier education,” she said. “Now more than ever, the people in this village and school community need to work together as one, in regards to the LIPA/National Grid gorilla staring us in the face.”

Ryan Walker: He moved to the district in 2010 and also has two children attending Port Jeff schools. Walker spent 10 years as a New York State police sergeant, followed by three years as a security guard in local schools. He was one of New York’s first nationally certified school resource officers in 2002.

He said his experience in law enforcement “will be an asset regarding the safety of the students in our schools.”

“I will work to balance the concerns of the residents with a common sense fiscal management plan to address our overall district funding needs,” he said.

René Tidwell: She has a daughter in sixth grade, and a long work history in banking and financial services. Tidwell currently works as a special education teacher’s aide. She is running because she wants to lend her
expertise in financial planning to help the community plan long term for the possibility of less annual property tax revenue, citing a need for not only student advocacy, but for taxpayers.

“With over 20 years of experience in banking and financial services, I will focus on data-driven research, analysis and long-term planning to develop solutions for our district’s funding requirements,” she said.

Jason Kronberg: Dr. Kronberg is a pediatrician with two children in district schools. He moved to Port Jeff in 2003 from Queens and cited his willingness to listen to all sides of a debate along with being “fiscally conservative,” yet “socially liberal” as assets he’ll bring to the district if elected.

“I was asked to become a member of the school board to serve as a rational and non-biased voice in what has become a contentious environment,” he said.

Mia Farina: She is a NYPD officer with a 6-year-old son in the elementary school. Farina said her philosophy if elected would be “if it’s important to your child it’s important to me.” She said her experience as a police
officer makes her uniquely qualified to address security concerns within schools.

“I would bring all my knowledge and assist the schools in every way to help keep our children stay safe at school and educate them in every possible way I know how,” she said.

Ryan Biedenkapp: He has a daughter and twin sons, and said an autism diagnosis for one of the twins precipitated their move to Port Jeff from Oceanside. He has experience as an occupational therapist and currently works in pharmaceutical sales.

“I see a need to increase communication among all stakeholders, while staying focused on the needs of all students,” he said about his reasons for running. “By increasing communication among all community stakeholders, building a stronger sense of community among students and staying focused on fiscal responsibilities, Port Jefferson will remain a school district we can all be proud of.”

The budget vote and trustee elections are on Tuesday, May 15.

Superintendent Paul Casciano and board president, Kathleen Brennan, listen to members of the public during an April 10 board of education meeting. Photos by Alex Petroski

By Alex Petroski

The Port Jefferson board of education voted unanimously to adopt the district’s nearly $45 million 2018-19 budget April 18. This comes eight days after the board decided to table the resolution as it sought more specifics on an announced “agreement in principle” between Town of Brookhaven and the Long Island Power Authority over the utility’s property tax assessment on its Port Jefferson power plant.

Ongoing litigation has loomed over the district and Port Jefferson Village, which each receive substantial amounts of property tax revenue as a result of housing the plant. Brookhaven Supervisor Ed Romaine (R) announced April 3 the town had an agreement in principle to settle the case with LIPA, though specifics of the agreement have yet to be made public. Port Jefferson Village Mayor Margot Garant has also publicly said the village is nearing a settlement in its version of the dispute with LIPA.

“The board of education and district administration have been working tirelessly on creating a budget that addresses our responsibility to provide an excellent education for our students in a physically and emotionally safe and secure environment that is balanced with sensitivity to the fiscal impact on our residents,” Superintendent Paul Casciano said April 18. “The proposed budget assumes that a finalized agreement between the Town of Brookhaven and LIPA does not materialize in time to impact the 2018-19 school budget.”

Casciano said during the April 10 meeting taxpayers should prepare for the possibility of program cuts and/or property tax increases in the coming years.

A letter from Romaine to Casciano and BOE President Kathleen Brennan dated April 11 said the town attorney and assessor’s offices have been in touch with district officials to make the district aware of how a settlement would impact the 2018-19 town assessment rolls, which directly impact school tax rates.

The adopted budget carries a 2.27 percent tax levy increase and a 2.23 percent increase to state aid. The 2018-19 budget rolls over all programs from the current year, with contractual raises and higher health
insurance costs for faculty and staff driving the 3.65 percent overall budget increase.

The district also presented a backup plan should an official settlement be reached between the town and LIPA prior to June 30, which would impact the current year assessments. PJSD is prepared to make $130,000 in reductions to help mitigate a possible 5.67 percent drop in assessed value of the plant, or a 50 percent reduction in the assessment spread out evenly over a nine-year span.

On April 20, state Sen. John Flanagan (R-East Northport) introduced legislation co-sponsored by Sen. Ken LaValle (R-Port Jefferson) that would authorize municipalities to obtain “tax certiorari stabilization reserve funds” via the Urban Development Corporation Act in the event agreed-upon settlements result in loss of tax revenues or increased tax levies of more than 20 percent. The bill is before the state Senate finance committee.

District hoping for details on Brookhaven, LIPA settlement before finalizing 2018-19 spending plan

Superintendent Paul Casciano and board president, Kathleen Brennan, listen to members of the public during an April 10 board of education meeting. Photos by Alex Petroski

An announcement by Brookhaven Town Supervisor Ed Romaine (R) April 3 was supposed to provide clarity, but it has done anything but.

Romaine announced during his State of the Town address Brookhaven had reached a settlement with the Long Island Power Authority, which would end the legal battle being waged since 2010 regarding the assessed valuation and property tax bill the public utility has been paying on its Port Jefferson power plant. While in the midst of preparing its 2018-19 budget, Port Jefferson School District officials said in a statement they were caught off guard by the announcement and, as a result, the board of education moved to delay
adopting its proposed budget during a meeting April 10. The board will hold a special meeting April 18, when the budget will be presented before a vote to adopt. School budgets must be submitted to New York State no later than April 20.

“We don’t know what the terms of that agreement are — as a matter of fact, there is no agreement.”

— Paul Casciano

“When you plan to make reductions, you need to know how much to reduce,” Superintendent Paul Casciano said during the meeting. “That is the problem with what the town announced, because essentially what the town announced was that they reached a tentative deal. We don’t know what the terms of that agreement are — as a matter of fact, there is no agreement. That’s what we have learned. There are a lot of things that have been talked about at the town level. We have been spending a lot of time trying to find out what the details are.”

Town spokesman Kevin Molloy refuted Casciano’s claim that a deal is not in place.

“We have an agreement in principle, it has not been finalized or signed,” he said in a phone interview. “The town has sought state aid as part of this agreement. This state aid was not included in the recently adopted budget. We are continuing to work with LIPA for a settlement to this case that is fair for our residents and uses any funds from this settlement to reduce electrical charges to ratepayers.”

The town has not shared details about the agreement in principle publicly.

Casciano was asked by resident Rene Tidwell during the April 10 meeting if the district had long-range plans to address the likelihood it will be losing a chunk of the annual revenue the district receives as a result of the power plant’s presence within the district.

“I’m deeply concerned that this potentially devastating issue has not been more proactively addressed in the years since it was first initiated,” Tidwell said during the public comment period of the meeting.

Casciano strongly pushed back against the idea the issue hasn’t been a top priority for the board and administration.

“We have an agreement in principle, it has not been finalized or signed.”

— Kevin Molloy

“The plan is very simple — you cut staff, which results in cutting programs,” he said, though he also put the onus on residents to prepare for possible future tax increases. “There comes a time where it’s not all going to be the school district
cutting programs and cutting staff. At some point, taxpayers — and it may be this year — are going to see an increase in their taxes. We don’t assess. The town assesses. The village assesses.”

Board president, Kathleen Brennan, also disagreed with the idea the board has not been prepared to deal with the LIPA situation.

“I’ve been a board member for eight years,” she said. “Going back those eight years on that board and every subsequent board, this board has addressed the issue head on and has done things that you haven’t read about on our website.”

Board member Vincent Ruggiero first motioned to remove budget adoption from the BOE agenda.

“Given the uncertainty and the fact we don’t have a clear answer from Brookhaven, we have a week that we can adopt this budget, I’m just proposing that we wait as long as we can for some type of response, although we probably won’t get one, and hold the vote next week,” he said.

The public portion of the special April 18 meeting of the BOE will begin at 6:30 p.m.

Suffolk Region PTA Director Joan Wabnik, right, confirms the PJSD SEPTA officers after the group was chartered March 26 at the high school library. Photo by Alex Petroski

Many hands make light work.

Parents in the Port Jefferson School District fully embraced the axiom March 26 by officially chartering a special-education-specific Parent-Teacher Association.

“I am a parent of a child with special needs,” said Leza DiBella, who was officially voted PJSD’s SEPTA president-elect Monday night. “I’m also an attorney, and even as an attorney, the process of getting everything I need for my son and going through [Committees on Special Education], it’s overwhelming.”

DiBella, along with Karen Sullivan, another parent of a child with special needs in the district, and a handful of others have been working to get the organization off the ground and chartered by the Suffolk Region PTA since December. Sullivan was elected president at the meeting and will serve a two-year term, at which point DiBella will step in and a new president-elect will be chosen to learn for what will essentially be a two-year training period, pursuant to the bylaws voted upon by the members March 26. The new SEPTA joins the Parent-Teacher-Student Association, which serves the middle and high school communities in Port Jeff, and the Parent Teacher Association, which oversees the elementary school.

“We have two other wonderful sister organizations, the PTA and the PTSA, but they have a lot on their plate to kind of focus on, so we just wanted another organization to really hone in and focus on special education students,” Sullivan said. “The special education students and parents get to have a bigger voice. We get to focus on advocacy for the children; we get to focus on different workshops and guest speakers — really just more creating support and advocacy for the needs of the special education students and parents.”

To officially be chartered, the group needed at least 25 community members present at the meeting to vote on the nominated officers and bylaws, who were also willing to pay the $12 annual membership fee. Sullivan, DiBella and Superintendent Paul Casciano all said they weren’t sure what type of turnout to expect. Sixty-four members registered Monday night.

“It’s fantastic,” Sullivan said. “It means that the community is really supportive. It means that the community wants it.”

DiBella chose a different word to sum up her feelings: “amazing.”

“It’s inspiring to be here,” she said. “I thought we have a really small community and it’s a small district. Some of our grades only have 60-plus kids in them. To see 64 paying members in this room was inspiring tonight.”

Linda Loverde, Suffolk Region PTA associate director, who conducted the business of the meeting, called the large initial membership sign-up something to be proud of.

“This is the greatest showing I’ve seen in quite a few years,” she said.

Casciano said he has high hopes for the future of the organization.

“Knowing some of the people — the officers and in the membership — I think they’ll come up with some pretty creative things,” he said.

DiBella said the group’s mission first and foremost will be support for parents of children with special needs.

“As a parent it’s hard to know what to ask for, what your rights are, and we just wanted to help people get through the process and get their children everything they need,” she said. “There’s so much to learn and I draw on my legal background all the time. Without that, I don’t know how a parent could possibly do it on their own. I felt like as a district it would help other parents with providing information and guidance, and also we’re a support group for each other.”

For more information about PJSD SEPTA or to become a member, email portjeffersonsepta@gmail.com.

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.”

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

The gun control debate in the United States has been fully underway seemingly for decades. Following the shooting in Parkland, Florida, at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Feb. 14 that left 17 people dead, the debate has taken on a different tone, and thanks to the activism of survivors, many of whom are high school students, the conversation hasn’t yet retreated to the back burner even a few news cycles removed from the shooting. In fact, the MSD students have ensured their cause will be garnering attention through at least April 20.

Two nationwide student walkouts have been planned and are being promoted on social media.

On March 14, the group Women’s March Youth EMPOWER is calling for students, teachers, school administrators and parents to walk out of schools for 17 minutes, in honor of the 17 Parkland victims,
beginning at 10 a.m. The purpose of the protest, according to a website promoting it, is to shine a light on Congress’ “inaction to do more than Tweet thoughts and prayers in response to the gun violence plaguing our schools and neighborhoods.” The walkout is being promoted on social media using the hashtag #ENOUGH.

“We want students who choose to be involved to have a focus for their efforts so the day and time will be meaningful.”

— Paul Casciano

On April 20, a similar protest is being planned to coincide with the anniversary of the mass shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado in 1999. The organizers of this event, simply called National School Walkout, are also calling for those in school buildings to stand up and exit at 10 a.m. for 17 minutes of silence, followed by an “open mic” session in which students will be encouraged to voice opinions. The organizers of this walkout envision a day-long event concluding at the end of the school day.

“We’re protesting the violence in schools and the lack of change that has occurred to stop that,” the website created for the event says. “This issue needs constant attention if we hope to change anything, so multiple events on multiple days is a productive way to help fight for our cause, a safer country.”

Local school districts and students are addressing if or how the marches might play out here, with logistics and safety being of the utmost concern for administrators.

In Port Jefferson School District, administration is taking a hands-on approach in handling a potential protest. Superintendent Paul Casciano said the district’s principals are working with students and teachers to finalize plans.

“We want students who choose to be involved to have a focus for their efforts so the day and time will be meaningful,” he said. He added that when plans are established the district will make them public to ensure parents are informed about what might take place.

Ben Zaltsman, student body president at Port Jefferson High School, shared details about plans for protest, which will take on a tone meant to honor victims rather than a political message. He said initially students expressed a desire to walk out among themselves, but that administration found out and was concerned about safety hazards associated with leaving the building. Instead of a walkout, the district and student
government got together to formulate a plan to commemorate the day and participate in the national movement.

“Something like this is not disruptive. I don’t think it’s political.”

— Ben Zaltsman

Zaltsman, who’s heading to Rice University in the fall, said he and the rest of the high school’s student government met with administration and agreed on a 17-minute ceremony in the auditorium March 14.

“The April one seems like it’s more political — this is to honor and remember Parkland victims,” Zaltsman said of the two rallies. He said he’s not sure how many students might participate in the voluntary demonstration, which will take place during fourth period, but he expects it will be many. He also said it’s possible students will decide to walkout on their own anyway, but that he hadn’t heard of anyone planning to do so.

“My mom said she knew I was already participating and I have a younger brother who is expected to participate too,” Zaltsman said when asked if he’d discussed walking out with his parents. “Something like this is not disruptive. I don’t think it’s political.”

Comsewogue School District Deputy Superintendent Jennifer Quinn said in an email students were working on organizing a demonstration, though the district did not provide specifics in time for print.

Parents in the district have strong opinions on the idea of their kids participating in a political protest
during school hours in a discussion on a Facebook page comprised of Comsewogue community members.

“Instead of walking out and protesting, walk into the cafeteria and talk to kids you normally wouldn’t,” poster Caitlin Mae, a district employee, said while expressing skepticism that a walkout would accomplish much. “Befriend those who don’t have friends. Scold those students who encourage bullying.”

Jessica Glass, the mother of a junior at the high school, said she had discussed the possibility of walking out with her daughter.

“I would be proud of my kids if they had strong views and chose to express themselves in this way.”

— Rachel Begley

“She feels very strongly about reform and is interested in all the aspects of how to bring it about,” she said. “Is gun reform the answer? Is mental health awareness the answer? Is more teacher/parent awareness of students the answer? Is a walk out the best idea? She doesn’t have the answer, but she feels that students in a movement would bring awareness to an issue on a higher level than the awareness is now. That’s what’s important to her, raising awareness in many ways for change.”

Several others said they viewed students walking out of school at a set date and time as a security concern in and of itself.

“We are all worried about security, I don’t think a walkout is such a good idea,” Edward Garboski said. “By doing so we are allowing our kids to become perfect targets. I would hope our parents see the same thing I see. My kids will not walk out of school.”

Others applauded the idea of students being politically and civically engaged.

“I would be proud of my kids if they had strong views and chose to express themselves in this way,” Rachel Begley said. “They don’t have a vote, so this is one way of making themselves seen and heard.”

While the federal government deals with the political gridlock long associated with gun control, New York is working on action to at least improve safety in the short term, though not to address gun laws.

“Every New Yorker and every American is outraged by the senseless violence that is occurring in schools throughout the country,” state Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan (R-East Northport) said in a statement Feb. 28. The state Senate approved a series of bills March 5 that include more funding for security cameras, armed police officers or security personnel for districts that want it, panic buttons, active shooter drills, better emergency response plans, hardening of school doors and more. A package of gun control measures proposed by Senate Democrats was rejected.

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.

Port Jefferson High School. File photo by Elana Glowatz

Just days after a shooting killed 17 at a high school in Florida, a threat was made via social media against Port Jefferson High School, according to an email sent to parents in the district by Superintendent Paul Casciano.

“Today our high school administration was made aware of an alleged threat via social media,” Casciano’s email said. The message went out just before midnight Feb. 15. “An investigation was conducted and all appropriate protocols were followed, including the involvement of law enforcement authorities. School will be open tomorrow as planned. Extra precautions will be put in place to reassure our students and staff that they are safe. Thank you for your cooperation and understanding.”

The district sent out an update to parents on the situation Friday afternoon and posted the message on its website.

“While I know that there are many questions that you may have, please understand that there is a limit to the amount of information we are permitted to share publicly about this type of situation,” Casciano said in the notice to parents. “Please know that the individual responsible for the threat has been identified and that our district is complying with the Suffolk County Police Department with their ongoing investigation into this matter. Our top priority is the safety and security of our students and staff and we are working diligently to ensure that all of our available resources are deployed as extra precautions.”

The superintendent’s message sought in part to dispel what her referred to as “a firestorm of rumors,” on social media.

“At no time today or yesterday were any of our campuses on lockdown/lockout, no evacuation occurred and no bomb threat was made against any of our school facilities,” he said. “The police presence on campus was intended to put our parents and students at ease and was a direct result on the before mentioned ongoing investigation.”

Casciano shared details about the district’s preparedness for an active shooter situation prior to the news about the threat.

“It is important for us to establish an environment for students and staff that is safe and secure physically, mentally and emotionally,” he said. “We conduct drills on a regular basis with our staff and students. We have security guards in place and question visitors to our schools. Our staff knows to report any suspicious people on or around our school property. Security cameras exist throughout our property. We are working collaboratively with the Suffolk County Police Department to identify areas for continued attention moving forward … Internally, we are working with students through a variety of programs and strategies to address their social-emotional health.”

The Suffolk County Police Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment. School will be closed next week for mid-winter recess.

This story was updated Feb. 16 to include Casciano’s Friday afternoon update.

This story will be updated as more information is available.

Reporting contributed by Kevin Redding.

 

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Vapes, or electronic cigarettes, are becoming more and more popular among young people, despite a lack of research about the health effects. Photo by John Petroski

By Sabrina Petroski

The “vape life” has found its way into the Port Jefferson School District, making it one of many being forced to address the new trend.

On Jan. 10, Earl L. Vandermeulen High School hosted a community forum about the dangers associated with the use of electronic cigarettes and vaping among young people. The forum, led by the Senior Drug Abuse Educator with the Suffolk County Department of Health, Stephanie Sloan, gave parents and teachers a wealth of information on the issue.

The use of e-cigarettes rose exponentially between 2011 and 2015 across the United States within both middle and high schools, according to Sloan, who cited statistics from a 2016 report on the matter by the office of the U.S. Surgeon General. Sloan said e-cigarette use increased from less than 2 percent in high schools to 15 percent, and less than 1 percent in middle schools to 5 percent over that time period. According to Sloan, more young people are using the various devices because they are curious, there are fun flavors, and there is no perception of risk.

“They are not harmless and we have to work together to encourage healthier decisions among adults and youth,” Sloan said.

Though there isn’t a lot of conclusive research on e-cigarettes yet, what we do know is the liquid, known as e-juice, is made of a combination of nicotine and propylene glycol, with traces of diacetyl, acetoin, ultrafine particles of metal, and benzene. Sloan pointed out, there is no water in the vapor being inhaled.

The devices come in different shapes and sizes; some as small as an actual cigarette, while others are the size of a cellphone. The smallest, and most popular among young adults is the size and shape of a USB drive, and it leaves no odor, making it easy to hide on school grounds.

“They are not harmless and we have to work together to encourage healthier decisions among adults and youth.”

— Stephanie Sloan

“The problem is, it is very difficult to detect,” said Christine Austen, the high school principal. “Compared to cigarettes there’s no scent, there’s no smoke, and there’s no evidence unless other students report it.”

The trend started in Port Jeff last school year but has become much more frequent since, according to leadership in the district. In an effort to stop students from picking up the habit, the school district has added a section about the dangers of e-cigarettes into the curriculum of every health class.

“We want the kids to know that there are varying amounts of nicotine and other synthetics in these vapes,” said Danielle Turner, the Director of Health, Physical Education and Athletics. “Prevention is most important because of what we still don’t know.”

Though there are age restrictions on buying e-cigarettes and vapes, the underage students are still finding ways to obtain them. According to Robert Neidig, Port Jefferson Middle School principal, students say they can access them online with gift cards or through older siblings and friends.

E-cigarettes have recently been added to the Clean Indoor Air Act, making it illegal for them to be used anywhere tobacco products are banned, including on school grounds. Sloan urged administrators to treat the devices the same as cigarettes when punishment is being decided.

According to Superintendent Paul Casciano, punishments for students caught with e-cigarettes on school property are handled on a case by case basis. A parent of both a middle school and a high school student said during the forum he believes there should be a blanket punishment.

“Just a phone call home isn’t enough,” he said. “All of the students should be treated the same in spite of other infractions. The first offense should be a warning, and the second should be a blanket punishment.”

The Port Jeff school district received a grant which will allow it to install vapor detectors in the bathrooms of the school, and going forward the district plan is for the faculty and staff to continue their efforts to keep the community aware and educated.

If you know of or suspect any stores that are selling e-cigarettes or accompanying items to people under the age of 21, you can contact the Department of Health Services Investigation Team by calling 631-853-3162. For more information on the dangers associated with e-cigarettes contact Stephanie Sloan by calling 631-853-8554, or emailing Stephanie.Sloan@SuffolkCountyNY.Gov.

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