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Rocky Point school district

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Rocky Point High School. File photo by Desirée Keegan

The Rocky Point school district is battening down the hatches and shoring up its defenses with money from its ongoing capital bond project.

The newly renovated music room in the high school. Photo from Rocky Point

The district has finished phase 2 of its list of projects set after passing a 2016 bond proposal. Much of the work has already been completed, including replacing the aging ceiling and lighting in much of the district’s four school buildings.

“What we did weren’t things that are exciting like adding on a new wing, new classrooms or a new gymnasium, they were basic things to keep serving the students,” Superintendent Michael Ring said.

In 2016 Rocky Point residents voted to let the district borrow $16 million for upgrades and repairs. The first half of the project, amounting to roughly $7 million, was completed in summer 2017. Parts of the second half of the plan, costing approximately $9 million, were completed before the start of the school year Sept. 4, according to the district.

In 2017, residents also approved with a 600 to 312 vote to release $3.4 million in capital reserve funds to work in tandem with the bond projects. That money was used to renovate the district’s music classrooms as well as finishing resealing of the middle school’s exterior brickwork to prevent water penetration. There are also plans for a future reconfiguration of the roadways on middle and high school property. Work is ongoing to refurbish the turf on the high school’s lower field, but Ring said weather has delayed the project. He said it should be completed within the next few weeks.

Renovated locker rooms at Rocky Point High School. Photo from Rocky Point

Last year’s bond work included new boilers and renovated bathrooms at the Joseph A. Edgar Elementary School, as well as adding air conditioning to the high school auditorium. Summer 2018 construction, overseen by Huntington Station-based Park East Construction Corp., provided renovations to the high school’s boys and girls locker rooms and bathrooms. An Americans With Disabilities Act-compliant lift for the high school gym stage was also installed. Along with the work at the high school, the Frank J. Carasiti Elementary School cafeteria had new air conditioning installed.

Ring said the most substantial improvement to district buildings during the past summer was the installation of new LED lighting fixtures throughout the high school and JAE elementary. The new lighting should be more energy efficient, he said, while giving the school the opportunity to replace aging ceiling tiles in places that had not been addressed for close to 50 years, since the high school was constructed.

Work to renovate the middle school’s lighting system will take place during the year after school hours. FJC elementary has had its lighting replaced in the building’s corridors, and the rest of the building’s lighting will be updated in summer 2019.

These lighting fixtures include new “daylight harvesting technology” that will dim the lights depending upon the amount of natural light that enters the room, which Ring said should save on electrical costs. The new lights also have occupancy sensors that will shut off all lights if there is nobody in the room.

“That’s so you don’t see that effect you see when you’re driving down the road and the whole building is lit up, even if it’s 8 o’clock at night,” Ring said.

Newly installed LED hallway lighting at Frank J. Carasiti Elementary School. Photo from Rocky Point

As part of the bond project, the district is also looking to beef up security at its buildings. The district added unarmed security guards to school buildings for the start of the new school year. Rocky Point is also looking to implement a new door access system to reject unwanted intruders as well as “door-ajar systems” that will notify the school if a door is being propped open from the inside.

The district also wants to improve its security camera capabilities by adding more camera coverage as well as installing new facial recognition and license plate reading technology. Ring said those projects are currently on hold awaiting New York State approval. If approved, the district will immediately put proposals out for bid so construction of those security additions can begin before the end of the 2018-19 school year, according to the superintendent.

Ring said he happy with the results of the bond work so far, even as it became stressful to finish ongoing projects before students returned for the start of classes.

“It’s always a relief when it’s done because it’s always a stressful time,” Ring said. “When you look at the end of June and things are getting pulled apart, then hoping and praying they get put back together for September. Hopefully next year’s project will come along, and the same thing will happen.”

Rocky Point board of ed Trustees Joseph Coniglione and Ed Casswell and President Susan Sullivan discuss the vote results May 15. Photo by Kyle Barr

Despite a storm that plowed through Long Island at the same time that many residents were to head out to vote May 15, Rocky Point residents passed the school districts $86,128,785 budget with 499 yes votes to 226 no.

“The most important thing for us was to put forward a budget that is fiscally responsible while we continually try to grow options for students at our schools,” Superintendent Michael Ring said.

The largest increases came from teacher benefits and new general education initiatives, like science, technology, engineering and math initiatives, new Advanced Placement courses and special education services.

Ring said he was disappointed with the voter turnout compared to last year, which saw 909 residents come out to vote. Ring partially blamed Tuesday’s storm that came around when the district usually sees most come out to vote.

“Most come out to vote after 5 p.m.,” Ring said. “Thankfully enough came out.”

Two trustee seats were opened on the board. Incumbent Ed Casswell was voted to his second term with 551 votes and newcomer Gregory Amendola was elected to the board with 571 votes. The race was uncontested, with current board Vice President Scott Reh stepping down.

“We have a great board of education — its going to be a loss that Reh is leaving, but Greg Amendola is going to be a great addition to the team,” said Casswell, a 26-year resident who was elected alongside Reh in 2015.

The vice president, who is Mount Sinai’s athletic director, said he felt it was time to step down after nine years on the board.

“I did it for three terms, but it was very time consuming,” Reh said. “I think the board’s doing a great job. I think I’m leaving it in very good hands. I was honored and privileged to serve on it. I wish everyone the best of luck.”

Casswell has been a member of the North Shore Little League for 10 years and is currently the principal of Center Moriches High School.

“I feel it is important to be an active member of a community,” he said. “High levels of altruism and service among citizens help create vibrant communities. This has always been my driving force and calling. I believe in these notions and love serving.”

Amendola, a 13-year resident who is looking to get the community more involved, echoed Casswell’s comments about losing Reh, but said he looks forward to being on the board.

“It’s an exciting time,” Amendola said. “I’m excited to be part of the team and make a difference. As of now I really just want to get in and get my feet wet and help any way I can.”

The board members will assume their trustee positions at the July organizational meeting. There the board will also elect a president and vice president for next year.

Rocky Point students were give one day of in-school suspension for walking out. The students attended the March 19 board of education meeting to debate the decision. File photo by Kevin Reding

They were articulate. They were passionate. And they wanted answers. A week after they walked out and were punished by the district for it, a group of Rocky Point students stood before their administrators and spoke up.

About a dozen of the high schoolers who lined up to address the board of education March 19 were among the more than 30 district students who participated in the national school walkout five days earlier. The students, many of them AP scholars, student council members and star athletes, had each been issued one day of in-school suspension, and were banned from extracurricular activities for three days following their choice to stand behind the front gates of the high school for 17 minutes March 14. Those middle school and high school students joined young people across the country in holding up signs and demanding stricter gun legislation to help put an end to school violence, one month after the Parkland, Florida, school shooting that left 17 dead.

Rocky Point students who both did and didn’t walk out March 14 attended the March 19 board of education meeting supporting those who did. Photo by Kevin Redding

While the students said during the meeting they anticipated and accepted consequences, based on a letter the district sent to parents a week prior to the protest declaring that all participants would be “subject to administrative action,” they told board members they found the ruling of suspension to be “unnecessarily harsh” and a violation of the district’s own code of conduct as well as New York state law.

Many cited Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s (D) March 15 letter defending all students’ rights to peacefully express their views on controversial issues, stating that “any attempts to stifle this speech violates the constitutional rights of students and faculty to free speech.”

“By suspending any student who participated in this peaceful nationwide movement, the administration is effectively discouraging students to have their voices heard in society,” said senior Jade Pinkenburg, who helped organized the March 14 gathering. “This is an overreaction, and we need to find a more suitable compromise … Although I believe that students should not be punished for speaking their minds in a peaceful, nondisruptive protest, we would all have happily accepted three days of detention as a consequence for cutting class [as dictated in the code of conduct] … we didn’t walk out to just flout the school’s policies or denounce the administration, but we did this because it’s our lives on the line.”

Sophomore Emily Farrell reminded board members that many schools across the country and on Long Island, including Ward Melville and Mount Sinai, ultimately did not punish students for walking out, even after forbidding students from exiting school buildings.

“So why couldn’t you support us?” Farrell asked. “All that needed to be done was to send out an adult to escort the students and provide them appropriate permission to temporarily walk outside the school building — not leave school grounds, but just go outside. The students that walked out are good kids. … It’s disappointing that our administration suppressed our First Amendment rights by not supporting the walkout.”

“The students that walked out are good kids. … It’s disappointing that our administration suppressed our First Amendment rights.”

— Emily Farrell

One student called the district’s handling of the walkout “unpatriotic” and another asked, “At what point does our educational curriculum tell us that peaceful protest is wrong?”

Senior Nicki Tavares, a national honor society member, stepped up to the microphone to address the punishment.

“This is a blatant overextension of power that disregards rules and regulations set forth by the administration themselves,” he said.

Another senior, Jo Herman, urged administrators to remove the suspensions from their school records permanently.

“Our punishment contradicted the code of conduct,” Herman said. “When we got suspended we were informed that as long as there were no further disciplinary actions against us, they wouldn’t go on our records.”

According to the students, nowhere in the district’s code of conduct, which was officially adopted in 2011, does it state any specific way to handle a situation like this, suggesting that administrators “took matters into their own hands” and enforced a rule that didn’t exist. Students called into question why a “peaceful” protest warranted a suspension, which is considered “a severe penalty” in the code — imposed on those who are “insubordinate, disorderly, violent or disruptive, or whose conduct otherwise endangers the safety, morals, health or welfare of others.”

In the code of conduct it is stated under “prohibited student conduct” that “Students may be subject to disciplinary action, up to and including suspension from school, when they … engage in any willful act that disrupts the normal operation of the school community” and “The superintendent retains his/her authority to suspend students, but places primary responsibility for the suspension of students with the building principal.”

Pinkenburg said the students had done none of the prohibited actions in the code.

Students like sophomore Emily Farrell addressed the administrator’s mishandling of the event. Photo by Kevin Redding

“While the school claims that the walkout endangered the safety of those involved, we have not compromised the safety of other students, not ourselves, and we understood the risk involved,” he said. “We [also] did not disrupt the day at all, as all the students were watching tribute videos in the auditorium and gymnasium.”

According to the code of conduct, a student is to be given “due process” before a suspension is authorized. And, for any short-term suspension, as mandated by New York State Education Department policy section 3214 (3)(b), the school must notify parents in writing within 24 hours of their child’s suspension via “personal delivery, express mail delivery or some other means that is reasonably calculated to assure receipt of the notice within 24 hours of the decision to propose suspension at the last known address for the parents.” An opportunity for an informal conference is also encouraged.

But none of these procedures took place, according to the students and their parents.

“I have seen these students’ reputations be dragged through the mud for no other reason than they felt strongly about doing something about the ongoing violence and bullying here, and in schools across the nation,” said Brian Botticelli, whose daughter in the middle school was issued her unexpected suspension, as well as some hate texts from her peers because of her involvement. “It is my opinion that [Superintendent Michael Ring] overstepped his authority by issuing arbitrary and extreme punishments based on his ideological opinion instead of what is best for the student body … I ask that the board conduct a thorough investigation into the allegations that this was negligently mishandled.”

Botticelli explained that the students who walked out scheduled a meeting with Ring to better understand the penalties of their involvement March 13, which turned out to be a snow day. The parent said the meeting was canceled by Ring and never rescheduled.

In response to this, Ring said, “The students did send an email that evening [Tuesday, March 13], but we didn’t get it until the following morning … I was not available then. But it was my intention for that meeting to take place.”

Nicolette Green, a senior, said while she didn’t participate in the walkout, she still stands for those who did, and encouraged administrators to do the same.

“I have seen these students’ reputations be dragged through the mud for no other reason than they felt strongly about doing something about the ongoing violence and bullying here.”

— Brian Botticelli

“It is our right as students to speak about problems we have — not only within our schools but within our country,” she said. “Fighting against gun violence shouldn’t just be a student cause and, as members of the school, you should stand with us. We are calling for change.”

Green also addressed the district’s “heightened interest of safety and security,” as stated in the letter sent to parents as the main reason the walkout was prohibited and “not a viable option for our schools.” But, she said, that was proven to not be the case last week, referring to a PTA meeting in the school district March 14 in which a man pulled out a closed pocketknife while face-to-face with Pinkenburg, making a point that security is needed in rapidly escalating situations. Green said, although a security guard was present during that meeting, nothing was done to stop the man in an urgent manner. (See story on page A6.)

“This behavior should not be tolerated, and the event should not have happened,” Green said. “This man was told to leave by other parents, but he was not escorted out of the building. How was I or anyone else in that room supposed to blindly trust this guy? I don’t know this man or his background. Something should have been done.”

Ring interjected, assuring Green and the rest of the room that the district has since banned that individual from school property.

But not all speakers were against the district’s handling of the walkout.

“I would like to say that what the school district did with the walkout was appropriate,” eighth-grader Quentin Palifka said. “There was an email that was sent, and it did say that we were allowed to write letters to Congress, Senate and the Parkland victims … if you wanted to be heard, I think that you should’ve written a letter.”

Board Trustee Ed Casswell, who remembered being a history teacher the day the Columbine shootings occurred and how “numb” it left him, thanked all the students for weighing in.

“Someone said you’re all good students … you’re not good students, you’re great students,” Casswell said, turning his attention to parents in the room. “There have been 24 shootings in a K-12 institute since 1999, 10 since Sandy Hook. When is it going to be enough? We’re all united under the umbrella of health and safety for our kids. What I ask is rather than turn on each other, that we move forward locking arms.”

Students walked out of Rocky Point High School, and were given in-school suspension for not obeying district orders when it came to participation in the National School Walkout. File photo by Giselle Barkley

By Kevin Redding

Michelle Salz, the mother of Rocky Point Middle School student Isadora Luce — an eighth-grader who participated in the walkout March 14 — said she and a group of parents are in the process of contacting the American Civil Liberties Union in hopes of fighting their children’s suspensions legally.

According to Salz, in suspending her daughter, who is the president of the student council and National Junior Honor Society, and was one of eight middle schoolers involved, the administration violated its code of conduct by denying her the right to due process, foregoing an informal conference and not issuing a written notification within 24 hours of the authorized suspension.

Michelle Salz is disappointed the district chose to give her daughter in-school suspension for participating in the National School Walkout, and is contemplating taking legal action. Photo from Michelle Salz

Salz said when she requested information regarding consequences in the code of conduct for cutting class, Principal Scott O’Brien said there was nothing listed. It was O’Brien, she said, who ultimately made the decision to issue Isadora a suspension over a detention — a penalty Salz felt should be reserved for “violent or bad kids … not for cutting class.”

“She was surprised and dismayed,” Salz said. “She’s lost respect for her principal, and she also realizes how mishandled the whole situation is. … As educators, I think the district could’ve made this an empowering event that the kids would’ve never forgotten. They could’ve helped make signs, talked to them about laws, the tradition of protests and civil liberties. Instead, they chose to do this.”

O’Brien and Rocky Point Superintendent Michael Ring did not return requests for comment.

Isadora herself said, although this was predominantly a high school movement, she was inspired to participate from seeing the Parkland survivors take initiative, and because she said she’s passionate when it comes to gun control.

“I knew there would be punishment, but I’m very disappointed the school didn’t reward us at all for taking leadership,” Isadora said. “I wish they would respect that we’re doing this as a nationwide thing, rather than saying ‘Oh, it’s a risk to safety.’ They knew about this way ahead of time.”

A fellow eighth-grader who participated in the walkout with Isadora agreed that the punishment didn’t fit the crime.

“I feel like the superintendent used his own opinions to make a quick decision rather than take his time to see what would be best for everyone,” 14-year-old Ella Botticelli said. “I feel that this was wrong on his part and he should admit to that.”

“She realizes how mishandled the whole situation is. … As educators, I think the district could’ve made this an empowering event.”

— Michelle Salz

Salz said she and a group of parents who met through Facebook are waiting for a response to an email sent to New York Civil Liberties Union-Suffolk Chapter Director Irma Solis last week. Salz has also been in contact with attorneys from the area.

According to the ACLU website, while the law allows school districts to discipline students for missing class, “even if they’re doing so to participate in a protest” or to express themselves, a school can’t “discipline students more harshly because they are walking out to express a political view or because school administrators don’t support the views behind the protest.”

“We hope those schools recognize that even when they are within their right to discipline students for protests, that doesn’t always mean they should,” wrote ACLU member Vera Eidelman in a Feb. 22 article. “[The students’] activism inspires confidence in the future of our democracy and their schools should be proud of them.”

Salz said while she knows lawsuits will be a costly endeavor, she and the fellow parents are currently drumming up ideas on how to go about it.

“I don’t know how we’re going to afford it right now,” the mother said. “But this is the only way this school district is going to be made to change.”

By Desirée Keegan

One Rocky Point parent trying to make a point about school safety caused a stir.

A video has gone viral following a PTA meeting in the Rocky Point school district March 14. In the video, a man is seen pulling out what looks to be a closed pocket knife while face to face with Rocky Point senior Jade Pinkenberg. The man was seemingly making a point about the fact that security is needed in rapidly escalating situations.

“If something happened, if I decided to attack you, it would take the cops three to five minutes to come here, probably 10 if the traffic is bad,” he said to Pinkenburg as he pulls what appears to be a pocket knife from his pocket. “What are you going to do now?”

Someone in the back of the room can be heard yelling “stop it” as onlookers watched what was unfolding.

“This is inappropriate,” “he should be escorted out” parents at the meeting can be heard shouting. “You can’t pull a switchblade out on a kid in a school, that’s insane.”

The meeting was held in the evening the same day students walked out of school to join in the national walkout movement honoring the 17 lives lost in the Parkland, Florida, shooting Feb. 14 and to call attention to the need for stronger gun laws.

“During a discussion on the topic of armed security guards, a parent in attendance attempted to conduct a demonstration to reinforce his belief that all school districts should have such resources at their disposal,” Rocky Point Superintendent Michael Ring wrote in a statement on the district’s website following the incident. “While the district firmly acknowledges that the demonstration was ill-conceived and inappropriate for the venue, we believe that the act was not intended to compromise the safety of those in attendance. District personnel stopped the demonstration and members of our school security team removed the individual from the meeting. The district has contacted our dedicated Suffolk County Police Department School Resource Officer to report the incident.”

Students like, Jo Herman, who said she was suspended for walking out, expressed anger with how the situation was handled.

“I protested peacefully this morning and got suspended,” she said on Twitter. “A man threatened a kid with a knife at a PTA meeting and got gently escorted from the school. Show me the logic.”

Herman’s Twitter post of the video received nearly 21,000 likes and 10,000 retweets in less than 24 hours. Since then, the video has gone viral, being shared by thousands and watched by millions. Hundreds of people, from Rocky Point school district and beyond, have reacted to what they saw.

“Real quick to show their power against students, trying to show this is unacceptable, yet I don’t see a single administrator or security detail moving an inch when the knife was pulled on one of their students,” Rocky Point wrestler Ryan Callahan wrote.

Others were alarmed at how the trend of comments were made about the man’s actions being deplorable, but there was no mention of the attendee’s reactions.

“Every adult in that room should have jumped out of their seat and gotten between the student and that guy,” wrote Carmen Campos. “I would have, but what do I know — I’m a 61-year-old fourth-grade teacher.”

Some commenters asked others to try to see beyond the knife to the point the speaker was trying to make.

“The guy is presenting a scenario (albeit not in the brightest way),” wrote Cory Spence. “It’s clear to me that the kid didn’t feel threatened and the adult wasn’t being threatening. He’s holding the closed knife in a way to be clear to the kid.”

Superintendent states minimal changes will be made

Rocky Point High School. File photo by Desirée Keegan

The Rocky Point school district isn’t wasting any time getting its future finances in order, kicking off the new year with a workshop meeting on the proposed budget for the 2018-19 school year.

District Superintendent Michael Ring and board of education members met prior to their regular BOE meeting Jan. 8 to evaluate priorities, expectations and projected figures within the budget, which Ring anticipates will be “a very positive one” for the school and community. Although he said it’s too early in the process to present a total budget — a specific total will be presented in March — Ring stated that the 2018-19 budget will be tax cap compliant, as the 2017-18 budget was, and will maintain the growth in tax levy within the cap. The district also plans on keeping existing instructional and cocurricular programs, as well as performing arts and athletic programs, at all levels.   

Rocky Point Superintendent Michael Ring. File photo by Erika Karp

“Nothing’s being lost,” Ring said. “That’s always a concern, particularly among members of the community who have children in the schools. That and sticking within the tax cap are things we strive for. I think those are things people in the community want from us, so hopefully that will result in general positive acceptance of this budget.”

In the 2018-19 school year, the second half of bonding for capital projects totaling $16 million, approved by voters in 2016, will take place. The first half of the bond — roughly $7 million — funded projects completed this past summer, including, but not limited to, districtwide asbestos removal, the installation of air conditioning in the high school auditorium and multiple renovations within the Joseph A. Edgar Intermediate School, from making its bathrooms compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act to replacing boiler, burners and old piping.

The second half of the capital projects list — costing $9 million —  will fund the installation of energy-efficient ceilings and light-emitting diode lights throughout the district’s schools, bathroom renovations in the high school and Frank J. Carasiti Elementary School, modifications to the heating and ventilation systems and replacement of the public address and clock systems districtwide, among other things. The board plans to begin the improvements after school lets out this June, working throughout the summer for a before-fall completion date.

“It’s a lot of little things that need to be done,” Ring said. “[It happens] when facilities reach 30 to 40 years old.”

Greg Hilton, school business official, explained that, because of the bond, total debt service within the preliminary 2018-19 budget is at a peak $4.28 million, compared to $3 million in 2016-17. It won’t stay that way though, he said.

“This is the top,” he said. “And we’re expiring smaller debt in its place.”

“Nothing’s being lost. That’s always a concern, particularly among members of the community who have children in the schools.”

— Michael Ring

A “special recurring item” in the budget is a proposal to hire a full-time equivalent additional teaching assistant at the middle and high school level to support the classrooms that have a high population of students with disabilities, including first-level foreign language classes in the high school.

Ring said due to scheduling, coursework and graduation requirements, certain noncore courses end up having 50 percent or more of its students needing special education. When the ratio of students with disabilities in a classroom reaches 50 percent, the new hire would be utilized to assist the general teacher, modifying instruction and helping those students.

One-time proposals may include a $34,000 purchase of a van to help the district’s maintenance mechanic transport tools and parts efficiently, rather than forcing him to carry items to a job; an $80,000 renovation of the high school’s weight room; $20,000 for a small turf groomer for interim maintenance on the district’s athletic field while utilizing The LandTek Group for the bigger jobs; and $50,000 for upgrades to the high school auditorium speakers and wiring, prompted by resident complaints over the sound quality in that room.

The next budget workshop will be held Feb. 5 at 6 p.m. at Rocky Point High School.

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Volunteers from the Port Jeff and Rocky Point school districts, among others, prepare Camp Pa-Qua-Tuck for next summer during a fall cleanup event. Photo by Yvette Hohler

Like Batman responding to the bat signal in Gotham, leaders and volunteers from across the Port Jefferson community showed up to lend a hand to the Rotary Club of Port Jefferson Nov. 12 after the call went out asking for assistance.

Volunteers from the Port Jeff and Rocky Point school districts, among others, prepare Camp Pa-Qua-Tuck for next summer during a fall cleanup event. Photo by Yvette Hohler

Twice per year, Rotary clubs dedicated to bringing together leaders from the private sector to benefit those in need joined forces at Camp Pa-Qua-Tuck in Center Moriches to clean up the camp following fall events to get the facility ready for its primary use. The facility, which was founded nearly 70 years ago, serves as a sleep-away camp during summer months for children and young adults ages 6 to 21 with various disabilities and special needs.

About 65 percent of campers have autism spectrum disorder, though others with spina bifida, cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy and other challenges are also among the annual attendees. The camp serves as both a place for children with special needs to build self-esteem and camaraderie with peers featuring traditional camp activities and also as a respite for dedicated parents who in many cases provide round-the-clock care and support for their children.

Camp Pa-Qua-Tuck is funded through camper fees, fundraisers and donations, so its operation is thanks in large part to the volunteer efforts of Port Jefferson, Rocky Point and Middle Island Rotary clubs, among others. The two cleanups — one in the spring and the other in the fall — are conducted entirely by volunteers, and the second spruce-up job for 2017 took place Nov. 12 following several October fundraising events.

In total, 36 volunteers from Port Jefferson got their hands dirty during the cleanup, including 16 Rotarians and four family members, and 13 Port Jefferson high school Interact Club members. Charles McAteer of the Port Jefferson Station/Terryville Civic Association, Port Jeff high school principal Christine Austen, Senior Vice President for Administration at John T. Mather Memorial Hospital Kevin Murray, Port Jefferson Free Library Director Tom Donlon and Comsewogue Public Library Director Debra Engelhardt were among the volunteers from the Port Jefferson community at the event. Three members of Rocky Point Rotary and 17 Interact Club members from the Rocky Point school district led by Interact adviser Margaret Messinetti also lent a hand. Two members of Middle Island Rotary also pitched in.

“I have been taking the Interact students out to Camp Pa-Qua-Tuck for almost 15 years now,” said Deirdre Fillipi, director of the Interact Club at Port Jeff. The club has a similar mission to Rotary clubs and serves as a precursor to eventual Rotary membership after graduation. “It is a wonderful opportunity for our students to see how much they can achieve and the positive impact they can have on their community, especially when they combine their efforts. It’s nice to see how much they can achieve when working together.”

Dennis Brennan, Rotarian and past president, said the fall cleanup took a few hours and included raking the leaves of the camp’s 37-acre grounds, preparing dorms for future occupancy and much more.

“The youth are the most important part of having this whole thing,” Brennan said. “I think it’s important for one generation after another to realize what you have to do in order to prepare to get things ready for kids with special needs.”

Volunteers from the Port Jeff and Rocky Point school districts, among others, prepare Camp Pa-Qua-Tuck for next summer during a fall cleanup event. Photo by Yvette Hohler

Brennan said the younger volunteers don’t necessarily know who attends the camp before the cleanup begins, or what, for example, muscular dystrophy is or what it means to have it, but said an appreciation develops in the volunteers during the course of the day. He said the cleanup and volunteerism through the Rotary are a good preview for students interested in a pursuing a career in helping children with special needs and offer important perspective for others who aren’t.

“As they get older they’ll learn these are not people to feel sorry for, these are people who are different and who you can learn from,” he said.

Rotarian Sharon Brennan expressed a similar sentiment.

“When they’re out spending three hours raking or pulling staples out of the wall, hopefully the light bulb goes off that ‘I’m giving back to somebody who, for the summer, this is really important,’” she said.

Engelhardt, who attended the cleanup with her husband John and son Scott, said the event has become a tradition for her family.

“It’s special to work together as a family and to be a part of something bigger, through our local Rotary club, that benefits special needs children and their families from Suffolk County and beyond all summer long,” she said in an email. “It’s something we hope Scott will make a priority throughout his adult life, for his own health and for the health of our community.”

For more information about Camp Pa-Qua-Tuck visit www.camppaquatuck.com.

The Cognitore family, including United States Army Reserve veteran Joseph Cognitore Jr., pictured in uniform; and Chris Schulman, pictured surprising his sister Lisa during Rocky Point's 2017 graduation ceremony, share their Rocky Point roots and military service in common. Photo on left from Cognitore; file photo on right by Bill Landon

By Rich Acritelli

As our nation commemorates the anniversary of our fight for independence July 4th, there are many examples of military service that would make our Founding Fathers proud. The sacrifices that are made by our local citizens to protect this country should not be overlooked or forgotten.

At Rocky Point High School’s 2017 graduation ceremony, senior Lisa Schuchman was surprised to be reunited with her brother, Chris, who has been serving overseas in the United States Air Force. It had been three years since Chris traveled home from his duty station in Germany to see his loved ones in Sound Beach. As his former teacher and baseball coach, Chris is a sincere young man who represents all that is right with America. For the people gathered on the special occasion, myself included, it was an honor to witness the special moment for Chris, Lisa and their family. The big smile that beamed across Chris’s face for the crowded gym to see was characteristic of his genuine demeanor that I remember.

He was a kid who always hustled, never made excuses and was an outstanding teammate on and off the baseball field. Walking around the hallways of Rocky Point, Chris demonstrated a respect that was second to none and a smile that was contagious among his friends. It seemed like yesterday that his buddies Danny Capell, Jonathan Popko and Steven Soltysik could count on the outstanding attributes of “Schucky” to be an outstanding friend and teammate. When Chris told me that he was going to enlist in the Air Force, as his teacher, coach and a veteran, it was easy to understand that like with baseball, he would flourish in the military. He was a student who always understood the differences between right and wrong and a kid who was motivated to serve his nation.

Two months after he graduated, Chris completed basic training at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas. For Chris, this was one of his proudest accomplishments, as it solidified the discipline and structure that he learned in order to fulfill his future duties. When he completes his active duty obligation in 2019, it is his goal to return to civilian life to become a police officer and continue to serve in the Air Force Reserves.

“It is my fondest memories of the local kid who always shook my hand as a student, looked me in the eye and now answers ‘yes sir’ to many of the questions asked of him.”

— Rich Acritelli

Over the last three years, Chris has spent most of this time in Germany at the huge military base at Ramstein and at Kaiserslautern where he currently serves. He has handled the internal security for the air installations and worked with German police authorities to ensure that American military personnel are properly following the laws within the country.

From November 2014 to May 2015, Chris was deployed to Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan. He remained on base to ensure the safety of the American and NATO forces who count on the vital post for resources, reinforcements and logistical support. During his deployment, Chris recalled the presence of the enemy through the constant mortar attacks the Taliban waged against the mostly western forces that have been in Afghanistan since October 2001. Although he endured the frigid weather and snow, Chris vividly described the beauty of the mountains that were always nearby. His long-term deployment in Germany has allowed him the chance to travel to Ireland, France, Austria, Poland, Switzerland, Norway and the Netherlands. He has said he thoroughly enjoyed the ability to travel, learn about the different cultures, understand the German language and, with his big smile, he met a lovely German young lady who is studying to become a nurse.

Speaking with Chris, it is evident he fully understands the attention to detail required of his security forces job through the measured responses he provided about his time in Germany and Afghanistan. It is my fondest memories of the local kid who always shook my hand as a student, looked me in the eye and now answers “yes sir” to many of the questions asked of him. While his parents are very proud of every one of their children, you can tell the immense satisfaction that his father holds when he describes the experiences his son has gained through his service to America.

Joseph Cognitore Jr. graduated from Rocky Point High School in 1991. He is the son of Post 6249 Rocky Point Veterans of Foreign Wars Commander Joseph Cognitore, who was the last Grand Marshall of the Rocky Point St. Patrick’s Day Parade. Before going to college, Cognitore Jr. enlisted in the United States Army Reserves and was stationed at the military center in Shoreham, where he was trained as a medical supply specialist. In high school, Cognitore was a talented soccer and baseball player, who later went on to Suffolk County Community College, where he both played sports and studied criminal justice. After completing his first two years of school, he transferred to SUNY Brockport where he entered the Army ROTC program to become an officer. While he was determined to gain his commission, he continued studying criminal justice and minored in military history. In 1995, Cognitore graduated and was immediately promoted to the rank of second lieutenant. He was later trained in the difficult job of being an ordinance officer at Aberdeen Proving Grounds in Maryland.

A short time later he was deployed to South Korea where he was stationed near North Korea on the Demilitarized Zone. Cognitore worked in a missile maintenance company that helped ensure the air defense of American and South Korean forces against the constant threat of attack from North Korea.

“Like his father, who is a Vietnam veteran and a recipient of the Bronze Star, Cognitore has an incredibly bright future within the military.”

— Rich Acritelli

As a young second lieutenant, he served as a platoon leader who learned a great deal about the importance of taking care of his men in a combat area. Cognitore said he enjoyed traveling around South Korea and later volunteered for the explosives ordinance disposal unit. After serving for a year on the Korean Peninsula, he was promoted to a first lieutenant and he trained at ordinance training facilities in Alabama, Florida and Maryland. He was later ordered to Selfridge Air Force Base in Michigan to handle the sensitive ordinance materials at the base.

During the 9/11 attacks, fighter jets from Selfridge were scrambled too late to intercept Flight 93 over the skies of Shanksville, Pennsylvania. While he was serving in the upper Midwest, he said the attacks were devastating for him to watch. He grew up an hour from lower Manhattan, and right before the acts of terrorism, Cognitore visited the World Trade Center towers.

In 2007, he left his family in Michigan to be deployed to Kandahar, Afghanistan. His primary mission was to help train the Afghan Civil Order Police, to help ensure that the Taliban would not influence areas that were liberated from their previous control. It was another unique experience for the local officer who worked with NATO countries from England, Germany, the Czech Republic, Canada and Turkish military forces. For a brief time, Cognitore served at a Forward Operating Base established by the German army that was frequently attacked by the Taliban. Cognitore said he was thankful for his wife, Carrie, for her love and ability to take care of their home and children, Claire and Joseph Cognitore IV, while he was deployed.

In 2012, with his father at his side, Cognitore was promoted as a lieutenant colonel, and he accepted a new position as an executive officer of a transportation company at his base. With every job, duty station and elevated rank, he has continually distinguished himself as a capable officer that could handle all of his military tasks. Like his father, who is a Vietnam veteran and a recipient of the Bronze Star, Cognitore has an incredibly bright future within the military. He has already graduated from the Command and General Staff training program and will be attending the Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.

As we take time to honor the historic actions of our Founding Fathers, may we thank our current patriots who still continue to strengthen the American way of life for current and future generations of this great nation.

Rich Acritelli is a social studies teacher at Rocky Point High School and an adjunct professor of American history at Suffolk County Community College.

Rocky Point mother Robin Siefert is upset nothing was done after her 9-year-old daughter found a note on her desk containing several expletives (which have been removed from the photo), a swastika and Adolf Hitler’s name. Photo from Robin Siefert

Not long after Rocky Point mother Robin Siefert spoke to the school board about an anti-Semitic note left on her 9-year-old daughter’s desk March 23 at Joseph A. Edgar Intermediate School, U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) picked up the phone.

Zeldin, one of two Jewish Republicans in Congress, has 10-year-old twin daughters and reached out to Siefert as soon as he got wind of her situation, saying, “It hit very close to home.”

Rocky Point mother Robin Siefert is upset nothing was done after her 9-year-old daughter found a note on her desk containing hate speech. Photo by Kevin Redding

“I wanted to see if there was anything I could do to assist,” Zeldin, a regular at the school’s annual Veterans Day assembly, said after his call with Siefert. “I could tell I was talking to a very loving mother passionately advocating for her daughter, and trying to be strong through a challenge that negatively impacted a young, innocent child.”

He said he felt it was important the issue be combated aggressively at its source, saying someone who draws a swastika may be inclined to do it again, or more, in the future.

“There can’t really be a tolerance for it, or it’s only going to grow,” he said.

Siefert, who will be meeting with the board again in executive session May 16, said of Zeldin’s call, “It was just very nice to know my congressman cared about the situation … I have a lot of gratitude. I still can’t believe this happened to my child, but [she’s] starting to get a little better.”

The note in question, written by a classmate of Siefert’s daughter, included three obscenities, a swastika and Adolf Hitler’s name.

Siefert argued during a board meeting April 19 that not enough was done at the administrative level to comfort her daughter, inform the parents of the incident or find the student responsible for the note.

According to Rocky Point school district superintendent, Michael Ring, a thorough investigation has been conducted since the March 23 incident occurred, and there’s been transparency between school and parents.

“The police were contacted by the district regarding the matter and information provided thereon,” Ring wrote in an email. “Parents of all students in the class were contacted by the teacher at the time of the incident. Counselors have gone into the classroom to speak about tolerance, acceptance and respect. None of this was done in response to Mrs. Siefert speaking at the [board of education] meeting. All of this was put into place after and as a result of the incident, which the school and district took very seriously.”

Conversely, Siefert said, “This is all because I went in front of the board and said what I said. All these things happened after I spoke.”

Ring noted the school has continued to employ all its existing and ongoing character education and anti-bullying initiatives, including Six Pillars of Character and Social Skills/Friendship Groups and Caring Connections.

He said as recent as May 9, officers in the Suffolk County Police Department conducted an anti-bullying presentation to all grades at Joseph A. Edgar.

U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin reached out to a Rocky Point mom over an anti-Semitic note her daughter received. File photo

“I’m glad they’re being proactive now,” said Siefert, who claims she, not the school, was the one who filed a police report after the incident. “But I’d be much happier if the kid who did this to my daughter was put in counseling and punished appropriately.”

Zeldin agreed. According to his staff, the district’s efforts to find the student responsible were outlined, but ultimately the district, as well as police, believe “there is not enough evidence to take action.”

It will, however, “continue to follow proper protocol and work with the family on this case.”

“In alignment with our anti-harassment and code of conduct policies, proven instances of bullying are treated extremely seriously and age-appropriate discipline is put in place in response to such incidents,” Ring wrote. “This is a continuing investigation.”

On April 24, Linda Towlen, principal at Joseph A. Edgar, sent a letter to parents of students in a fifth-grade class informing them of an April 21 incident where small swastikas were found on a bathroom sign-out sheet.

According to the letter, “a thorough investigation has been undertaken to determine the source of these unacceptable symbols” and “as is our protocol … the Suffolk County Police were notified and a report filed.”

After this most recent incident, the school implemented the Second Step program in the classroom that deals with bullying and teasing.

A view of the main page of a piece of Reclaim NY’s Transparency Project. Image from ReclaimNY website

Transparency and honesty play a major role in healthy democracies, and now New York State municipalities will have a watchdog tracking their effectiveness, providing feedback publicly to concerned citizens, by concerned citizens.

Last week, Reclaim New York, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization established to “educate New Yorkers on issues like affordability, transparency and education,” launched a website designed to rate government accessibility and transparency based on an index of recommendations.

The site is part of the group’s New York Transparency Project, an initiative launched in 2016, which kicked off with 2,500 Freedom of Information Law requests for basic expenditure information to county, town and village governments, as well as school districts across Long Island and the state.

“This is an accountability tool,” Reclaim New York Communications Director Doug Kellogg said. “Anybody who wants to help do something to make government more accessible and accountable, go spend 30 minutes and input ratings.”

The new system allows citizens to grade local governments based on 29 indicators, including whether contracts are posted on the internet, there’s access to expenditure records, notices of meetings and the minutes to the meetings are available and contact information is listed for elected officials. The municipalities will receive an overall, objective grade. The grade will indicate which are transparent and law-abiding, as budget information and records access officers need to be publicly available.

“Anybody who wants to help do something to make government more accessible and accountable, go spend 30 minutes and input ratings.”

— Doug Kellogg

“Citizens can hold their governments accountable at every level if they have the right tools for the job,” executive director for the organization Brandon Muir said in a statement. “This is a truly unprecedented moment for New Yorkers who want to reclaim ownership of their government. Working with this new site they can make proactive transparency a reality.”

To input data, users must register with an email address. When data is put into the system, it is vetted and sited prior to going live to avoid a “wild west” feel, according to Kellogg. The process of imputing data to extract a rating for municipalities has only just begun. Kellogg said it will take time to have an all-encompassing collection of information.

In May 2016, Port Jefferson Village and Commack school district failed to comply with FOIL requests as part of the organization’s Transparency Project.

New York’s FOIL requires governments and school districts respond to records requests within five business days, whether with the information requested, a denial or an acknowledgement of the request. The response needs to include an estimated date when one of the latter two will occur. Denials can be appealed but  not allowed “on the basis that the request is voluminous or that locating or reviewing the requested records or providing the requested copies is burdensome, because the agency lacks sufficient staffing.”

As part of a project it dubbed the New York Transparency Project, Reclaim New York sent 253 Freedom of Information requests to school districts and municipalities on Long Island. It reported on its findings, saying that while many entities complied with state guidelines on processing such public records requests, and after the findings were released, Port Jefferson Village and Commack school district eventually complied with the requests.

Entities that it said complied included Suffolk County; Brookhaven, Smithtown and Huntington towns; Belle Terre and Lake Grove villages; and the Port Jefferson, Kings Park, Huntington, Smithtown, Mount Sinai, Miller Place and Rocky Point school districts, among others.

To become an evaluator for the website or to view data, visit www.reclaimnewyork.org and click on the Transparency tab.

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