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Rocky Point school district

Salutatorian Joshua Vogel and valedictorian Bryant Liu. Photo from RPUFSD

As a result of 13 years of hard work, determination and scholastic commitment, Rocky Point High School seniors Bryant Liu and Josh Vogel have been named the Class of 2019 valedictorian and salutatorian, respectively. 

Liu has a long school career that has included leadership and service experiences. He has taken 11 Advanced Placement courses and was recognized as an AP Scholar with Distinction as well as named a Commended Student in the 2019 National Merit Scholarship Program for exceptional academic promise.  

As a musician, the 2019 valedictorian has received many honors in the local area. He plays bass clarinet and trombone, is a section leader in the marching band and is a level 6 pianist and the first student from Rocky Point to be named an All-State pianist, one of only 12 in the state during his sophomore year. He received the Piano National Guild Supreme Pupil Award, placed second at the American Fine Arts Festival at Carnegie Hall, and receive honorable mention at the American Protégé International Competition of Romantic Music. In his free time, he also served as the accompanist for the seventh-grade chorus and participated in the Steinway Performers Showcase and represented Steinway and Sons at the Smith Haven Mall.

Liu finds time to balance his studies with many additional extracurricular activities.  He is a member of the National Honor Society, Math Honor Society, Math Team, Robotics Team and he has participated with the Pit Orchestra for the high school musical. He also participated on the varsity tennis and winter track teams.  

Outside of school, Liu worked as an intern at Brookhaven National Laboratory and participated at the Summer Research Program at Stony Brook University. He also works at the Chinese Learning Center at Stony Brook where he teaches language and culture to younger students.

Liu will graduate with a weighted average of 104.69 and is bound for the University of Southern California, where he will pursue a career in economics and mathematics.  

Vogel is a dedicated scholar, athlete, actor and a talented musician. He was named a Commended Student in the 2019 National Merit Scholarship program, Advanced Placement Scholar with Honors and will be graduating with a grade point average of 104.51.  

A singer, Vogel has been acknowledged with many honors and awards throughout his four years of high school, including being invited to perform at the SCMEA All-County Music Festival in the Mixed Chorus, the NYSCAME All-County Music Festival, Mixed Chorus and the NYSSMA All-State Conference, Mixed Chorus. This year, the 2019 salutatorian was selected to participate in NAFME All-National Honor Ensembles Mixed Choir that took place in Orlando, Florida, making Rocky Point history as the first district student to participate at this level. Vogel was the co-section leader of the French horns and bass clarinets in the marching band and participated in the Metropolitan Youth Orchestra and the Suffolk Symphonic Choir.  

He has also held a number of leadership roles in the school community, including serving as the president of his class for three years and as a member in the Human Rights, Athletes Helping Athletes and Compassion Without Borders clubs as well as the National Honor Society and Thespian Honor Society.

Vogel will be attending Dartmouth College in the fall, where he will be studying government.

Above, incoming superintendent Scott O’Brien. Photo from RPUFSD

Beginning in July, the Rocky Point school district will have a new superintendent for the first time in over 10 years, after longtime superintendent Micheal Ring announced his plans to retire at the end of the school year. 

Scott O’Brien, who currently serves as the district’s interim assistant superintendent, who has nearly two decades of educational experience in the Rocky Point school district, said he was honored to be selected as the new superintendent as it has been a position he has respected and held in high esteem.  

“Having been a teacher, assistant principal, principal and assistant superintendent in this district has made the transition into the superintendent position exciting and very personal,” he said. “I have worked with most of the staff in one capacity or another and know the majority of families in the community. I am very much looking forward to the opportunity to provide our students with an outstanding educational experience and the staff with the tools and support to achieve these goals.”

O’Brien’s journey in education began in college when he initially explored a career path in landscape architecture. He quickly discovered that his true calling was education after taking a college elective and taking part in a classroom observation.

“The sense of wonder and exploration that was in the room was palpable,” the upcoming superintendent said. “I knew at that moment that I wanted to be a part of the educational environment and help to enrich the lives of tomorrow’s leaders and support learning for all students.” 

The new superintendent has cherished that decision ever since. 

“My evolution through the years — from classroom teacher to administration — has been a natural progression, as I consider myself a lifelong learner,” he said. “Much of what I have experienced over this time has impacted the way I approach my job and ultimately was the driving force behind my decision to follow the path to the superintendent position.”

O’Brien said, “Rocky Point has always felt like a home away from home.” His grandparents lived in the town and he often visited them during his childhood. Throughout his time in the district he has gotten to know community members and expects to build on those relationships. 

The new superintendent said he feels fortunate to have worked alongside Ring and learn from him. 

“I firmly believe that our district is well-positioned to build upon its tradition of excellence well into the future as a result of Dr. Ring’s leadership,” he said.   

Rocky Point Union Free School District Superintendent Michael Ring speaks to the class of 2018 June 22. Photo by Bill Landon

With retirement close by, Ring reflects on career at Rocky Point  

“Serving the Rocky Point schools community for these past 11 years has been a privilege and a pleasure,” Ring said. 

The outgoing superintendent said the most fulfilling aspect of being in the position is working with teachers, administrators and support professionals to create and implement new and enhanced instructional and academic support programs to improve opportunities and outcomes for all students. 

“I will truly miss this process, as well as witnessing the results once these programs are instituted,” he said.

Some of the things Ring is most proud of is what he called closing the achievement gap for students with disabilities and those who were economically disadvantaged. Also, over the years he said the district has substantially expanded opportunities for academic rigor through the nearly doubling of Advanced Placement course offerings, implementation of a science research program spanning grades 7 to 12, and supporting each student in pursuing more challenging curricula. As a result, students are graduating with impressive transcripts and the district has experienced a 38 percent increase in the number of Advanced Placement scholars and a 23 percent increase in graduates receiving Regents diplomas with advanced designations.

Ring added there was no better choice to succeed him than O’Brien.  

“His depth and breadth of experience both as an educator and as a member of the Rocky Point schools community position him to continue to move the district forward to even greater levels of success for all of our students,” he added.  “There is no doubt that the future of the district will be bright under his leadership.”

Ring has no specific plans for retirement other than to have more time with family, but said he will miss being around the students, both in the classroom environment and in extracurricular activities. 

“They are why we all come to work every day,” he said. “Watching their growth academically, socially, emotionally and otherwise is what inspires all of us.”

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Student and parent takes part in STEM activities. Photo from RPUFSD

The Rocky Point school district hosted its second annual elementary STEM Celebration for students to create solutions to hands-on science and math-based challenges, to share their designs with their peers and to continue to improve their solutions. 

This year’s STEM Celebration theme was “Fun with Fairy Tales.” Several hundred students and parents attended this year’s event, where they were able to build zip lines for Rapunzel, a parachute for Jack to escape the giant, houses for the three little pigs, bridges and boats for the billy goats gruff, and construct a variety of other solutions to fairy tale character challenges. Attendees were able to participate in a LEGO build-a-thon and see Rocky Point robotics in action. 

 

Voting booths at Rocky Point High School. File photo by Kyle Barr
Check back later this week for Miller Place’s proposed school budget and interviews with school board trustee candidates.

School districts throughout the North Shore of Long Island are gearing up for budget votes on May 21. Here is a round up of some of the local districts latest budget overviews and a preview of candidates who are running for board of education trustee seats.  

Mount Sinai High School. File photo by Barbara Donlon

Mount Sinai School District budget overview 

The final proposed budget figure for the 2019-20 school year will be 61,009,770, which is a 1.34 percent and $806,295 increase from the current year’s amount. 

The district is poised to receive $18,007,000 in state aid in the upcoming school year, a slight decrease than it received last year. 

Though it will receive slightly more in foundation aid for the upcoming school year in $12,909,109 compared to this year’s figure of 12,845,044, the district will be receiving less money in building state aid. The 2019-20 amount will be $1,168,106, a $489,000 decrease in funds. That’s due to a 25-year-old bond loan on the high school finally being paid off, according to Superintendent Gordan Brodsal. 

“The bond on the high school is paid off,” he said. “No more principal, no more interest. That means no more building aid from the state.”

The tax levy cap for the district in 2019-20 will be 2.168 percent and the tax levy amount is $40,986,735, a $870,000 increase from the previous year. 

The tax rate for an average assessment of a household valued at $3,700 will be $9,839. As a result, and the district said there will be a $17 increase in tax rates for the average homeowner.

For capital projects, a separate vote in conjunction with budget, the board wants to set a capital reserve of $850,000. Including the $750,000 in funds put last year in capital reserve, the district will have $1.6 million for future capital projects.

Brosdal and the board are proposing to use $1.5 million for two projects: the cost of another partial repair of the high school’s roof and to replace the middle school’s HVAC system. The high school roof repair would cost $850,000 and the HVAC replacement would cost $650,000. The remaining $100,000 would be saved for future projects. 

Other highlights of the budget are plans to make the Consultant Teacher Direct Instructor program full day for children in grades 1 through 4. To expand the program, the district would be looking to hire two additional instructors. 

Also, the budget will cover replacement of outdated textbooks in the middle and high school. The total for the new textbooks will cost the district $75,550.

Mount Sinai board of education trustee vote

This year, Mount Sinai will have five candidates running for three open trustee seats. Board member Anne Marie Henninger’s seat will come up for vote again after she replaced trustee Michael Riggio, who vacated his position in August 2018. Board member Lynn Jordan will be vying for re-election. Challengers this year are Lisa Pfeffer, Chris Quartarone and Robert Pignatello. The two candidates with the highest votes will get a three-year term while the person to receive the third most votes will take up Riggio’s vacated seat, which will have a two-year tenure instead of the usual three years for the other seats. 

Rocky Point High School. File photo by Desirée Keegan

Rocky Point Union Free School District budget overview 

The latest proposed budget amount for the upcoming school year will be $86,743,446, a slight increase of 0.71 percent from last year’s amount. The district will also see a projected tax levy cap of 2.59 percent and a tax levy amount of $52,491,371, which is an increase by more than $1.3 million from the current year’s figure of $51,166,218. 

The district will be receiving $28,864,295 in state aid for 2019-20, an increase of close to $130,000. Rocky Point will get $19,044,293 in foundation aid, an increase of more than $140,000 compared to last year’s figure of $18,902,525. 

Another highlight of the budget overview is that debt services will decrease in the 2019-20 school year as a result of a completion of payments of two bonds that date back to 1995 and 2000. The bond payments will expire on June 30 and will save the district $451,751. 

Superintendent Micheal Ring said the bonds expiring were approved by voters for various construction projects, including the construction of the Rocky Point Middle School. As debt service decreases, so does building aid from New York State, which is provided to offset part of the cost of bond interest and principal payments over the life of debt. 

Employees Retirement System rates will decrease to 13.1 percent, which is expected to likely save the district more than $159,000. Teachers Retirement System rates are expected to decrease as well to 9 percent and would save the district close to $582,000. 

Ring said that as rates have gone down it has resulted in opportunities to better support the district’s core instructional programs and enhance maintenance of facilities.  

Rocky Point board of education trustee vote

This year there will be two open trustee seats. 

Board member Scott Reh, who was sworn in to the board Jan. 14 to fill the seat vacated by Joseph Coniglione earlier this school year, has said he has no plans on securing re-election in May and will let other candidates run for his seat. The candidate with the most votes will serve for the three-year term. The candidate with the second highest number of votes will serve the remainder of Coniglione’s term, which is one year. The candidates this year are Susan Sullivan, Michael Lisa and Jessica Ward. 

Shoreham-Wading River High School. File photo

Shoreham-Wading River Central School District budget overview

The finalized proposed budget figure for 2019-20 will be $75,952,416. It is a $1,176,344 increase from last year’s figure. 

The tax levy cap for the upcoming school year is 2.36 percent and the tax levy cap amount is $54,377,657, an increase of $1,257,442 from the current year’s amount. 

The district is expected to receive $12,676,465 in state aid for the 2019-20 school year, a decrease of over $98,000 from 2018-2019. Also, SWR will see an increase of over $48,000 in foundation state aid received with the total amount being $6,442,501. 

The fund balance for 2019-20 will decrease by close to $67,000 from 2018-19. 

The final budget will cover the implementation of an integrated video, door access and alarm management system as well as additional video cameras and perimeter fencing. Night gates will be installed at the Alfred G. Prodell Middle School, Miller Avenue Elementary School and Wading River Elementary School. Also, the budget will cover the purchase of a new high school auditorium bandshell and supplies/materials for the middle school greenhouse. 

Shoreham-Wading River board of education trustee vote

This year, SWR will have three trustee seats open.

The full terms of board members Michael Lewis and Kimberly Roff will expire June 30. Roff chose to not seek re-election. 

The third seat is for board member Erin Hunt, who resigned in March and whose term will expire June 30 as well.  

The candidates with the two highest number of votes will win the full three-year term seats.  These candidates’ term will be from July 1, 2019, through June 30, 2022.

The candidate with the third highest number of votes will win Hunt’s vacated seat.  The winning candidate’s term will begin the evening of the election, May 21, and their term of office will end June 30, 2020. An election will take place in May 2020 to fill the seat for a three-year term.

The five challengers for this year are: Thomas Sheridan, Jennifer Kitchen, Meghan Tepfenhardt, Edward Granshaw and William McGrath.

 

Rocky Point High School. File photo by Giselle Barkley

Rocky Point residents were able to get a full picture of its school district budget for the 2019-20 school year after two workshops on Jan. 14 and March 18 that covered all aspects of the budget.  

The total proposed budget amount for the upcoming school year will be $86,743,446, a slight increase of 0.71 percent from last year’s amount. The district will also see a projected tax levy cap of 2.59 percent and the tax levy amount would increase by more than $1.3 million. 

Rocky Point Union Free School District Superintendent Michael Ring speaks to the class of 2018 June 22. Photo by Bill Landon

At the Jan. 14 workshop, district officials expressed concerns over the delay in implementation of foundation aid to its schools and how it could affect state aid funds they receive. On April 1, the state passed its budget and the district will receive a preliminary figure of $19,044,293 in foundation aid, an increase of more than $140,000 from last year. 

“The district is appreciative of the efforts of our elected representatives in Albany for all they have done to provide additional foundation aid for the 2019-20 school year,” Superintendent Michael Ring said. “Although the increase for the school year represents a smaller rate of growth than in recent years, we are aware of the fiscal challenges being addressed in Albany.”

Another highlight from the January workshop was debt services which will decrease in the 2019-20 school year as a result of a completion of payments of two bonds that date back to 1995 and 2000. The bond payments will expire on June 30 and will save the district $451,751. 

The Rocky Point superintendent said the bonds expiring were approved by voters for various construction projects, including the construction of the Rocky Point Middle School. As debt service decreases, so does building aid from New York State, which is provided to offset part of the cost of bond interest and principal payments over the life of debt. 

Employees Retirement System rates will decrease to 13.1 percent, which will most likely save the district more than $159,000. Teachers Retirement System rates are expected to decrease as well to 9 percent and would save the district close to $582,000. 

Ring mentioned over the past decade the district experienced large increases in required contributions to both ERS and TRS.

“Those increases were challenging to fund and necessarily constrained funding for instructional programs and maintenance of buildings and grounds,” he said. “As these rates have settled back down, the result has been opportunities to better support our core instructional programs and enhance maintenance of our facilities.”

In the March presentation, the district showcased recent enrollment numbers of its students. For the upcoming school year, they are projecting a decrease of 56 students in total, the middle school and high school look to be the most affected as they will have 26 and 23 fewer students respectively.  

“We are aware of the fiscal challenges being addressed in Albany.”

— Michael Ring

Ring said declining enrollment is a factor impacting most Long Island school districts, adding the district has effectively managed the impact of this trend through appropriate allocation of resources, redeployment of staff when ordinary attrition occurs and anticipating future needs based on an understanding of the population trend.

The proposed budget is tax cap compliant, according to the superintendent. However, the final tax levy proposal that will go before the voters in May will not be final until acted upon by the board at its April 16 meeting.

For the budget to pass, the district will need a majority of voters support. If the district doesn’t get enough initial votes, the district would call for a second vote with the same or a revised budget. If the second vote does get enough support expenditures could be cut by more than $1.3 million. That could mean potential cuts to instructional and administrative staff as well as instructional support and athletics. 

The district budget hearing will be held May 7 at the Rocky Point High School auditorium and the budget vote will be held May 21.

Rocky Point High School. File photo by Giselle Barkley

Since Rocky Point High School was built in 1971, its graduates have gone on to become musicians, scientists, college athletes and more; but many also have gone into the armed services.

Now, the Rocky Point school district is looking to show its appreciation for those graduates turned veterans by creating a new Wall of Honor featuring the faces of close to 60 men and women who made the choice to serve after high school.

“We recognize the students for so many different things throughout the school year, whether it be academics, sports-related accomplishments, clubs — and this is just one thing that it’s nice to recognize these students for all they’ve done for our country,” Rocky Point High School Principal Susan Crossan said.

Crossan had seen similar walls in other school districts such as Longwood and Comsewogue and said she figured it was time her school also honored its homegrown veterans. She originally pitched the idea to a number of history teachers at the high school, including Jamie Mancini and Heather Laughlin-Cotter, who came to appreciate the idea very quickly she said, though it was high school social studies teacher Richard Acritelli, himself a nine-year army reservist veteran, who truly picked up the idea and ran with it.

“Rocky Point is a blue-collar area with a lot of men and women in the service community, a lot of policemen, firemen and many who served in the armed services,” Acritelli said. “We have strong ties to the defense of this country.”

Since spring, many Rocky Point teachers and students worked together in an effort to find and contact the district’s veterans. Acritelli said it was a balancing act, doing their best to get students who attended Rocky Point High School many years ago in addition to ones who only graduated recently.

“We have a variety of veterans up on the wall, such as those in military academies, those who served in the Cold War, those in the War on Terror, young people in ROTC programs, and those who literally just left the school,” Acritelli said. “In a short period of time — with the number of names we were able to get compiled — it’s going to be really tastefully done.”

Acritelli said almost all funding was provided by local sponsors, including the Rocky Point Teachers Association, the Rocky Point Athletic Booster Club, the Rocky Point VFW Post 6249 and the nonprofit Feal Good Foundation.

The wall is being constructed by Ronkonkoma-based Fricke Memorials, and each plaque will include a picture of the veteran, their name, rank and branch of armed service. Along with the plaques the wall will include black granite etchings and bronze emblems representing each military branch.

Some of the Rocky Point graduates named on the upcoming wall go back more than 50 years, before Rocky Point High School even existed, when students who graduated from the middle school instead traveled all the way to Port Jefferson to finish their education. Crossan said she expects more names to be added to the wall as the news of it in the community spreads.

“It’s very important that we show loyalty to the students who have served, that they know that their school has recognized their services at home and abroad,” Acritelli said.

The Wall of Honor will be located just to the right of the main entrance to the high school past the main auditorium entrance.

Crossan said the wall will be installed this coming weekend, and all plaques will be put up on the wall Nov. 12. The school will be hosting a school assembly celebrating Veterans Day Nov. 16, which will be followed by an unveiling of the wall.

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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.”

Rocky Point High School. 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.”

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