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Sandy Hook

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Sheriff Errol Toulon Jr. and his deputies spoke on what students should do about school shootings. Photo by Kyle Barr

When Suffolk County Deputy Sheriff Brian Butler asked Port Jefferson High School students whether they felt safe in school, approximately  half of the assembled ninth- to 12th-graders languidly raised their hands.

The county sheriff’s office has been conducting violence prevention classes with districts called Say Something as part of the national nonprofit Sandy Hook Promise campaign to mitigate school shootings. The presentation that was made to Port Jefferson middle and high schoolers Feb. 26 asked students to learn the warning signs of a person who may commit a violent act in or out of school, and then tell a teacher, school official or another adult about it.

“We’re not going to completely prevent a school shooting, but we can do a much better job,” Butler said.

“We’re not going to completely prevent a school shooting, but we can do a much better job.”

— Brian Butler

The deputy sheriff said one of the issues he has seen with kids being unwilling to come to adults with these comments is the aura of being called out as a “snitch.”

“We live in this, ‘I don’t want to be a snitch’ culture,” he said. “That’s a prison term.”

Butler said there were a number of warning signs students should look out for among their peers, including withdrawing from others, bullying, excessive anger, thoughts or plans of harming one’s self or others or other significant personality changes. Though the most obvious sign is a social media post, which in past shootings, shooters have used to explicitly announce their intentions days before the tragedies. 

The department pointed to a recent event in Brentwood where  Suffolk County police arrested a 16-year-old student Feb. 24 who allegedly posted a message on Snapchat saying he would be “shooting up the Brentwood Freshman Center” the following day. A student took a screen capture of the Snapchat message and sent it to officials, who arrested the young man on charges of making a terroristic threat.

While some could look at those warning signs and see a young person going through the normal emotional swings of becoming an adult, the deputies said the point of the presentation was to increase student’s awareness and to lighten the stigma of speaking up.

“This is not a paranoia thing,” Deputy Sheriff Keith Hoffman said. 

Sandy Hook Promise was formed in part by parents of children involved in the Newtown, Connecticut, school shooting in 2012, where a 20-year-old man fatally shot six adults and 20 elementary school children, all of whom were 7 years old or younger. The nonprofit announced a partnership with the county sheriff’s office in August 2018. Since then, Butler said the department has been to more than 10 school districts and spoken in front of hundreds of children.

“It may not happen here, but it might happen somewhere else you might be.”

— Errol Toulon Jr.

While the sheriff deputies said the likelihood of a school shooting happening in Port Jefferson is slim, Sheriff Errol Toulon Jr. (D) said the specter of the possibility hangs over students as they continue in school and even into higher education.

“It may not happen here, but it might happen somewhere else you might be,” Toulon said.

Still, many schools across Long Island have increased security measures. Port Jeff Superintendent Paul Casciano said the 2018-19 school budget included increases for the number of security staff, as well as funds for new security vestibules in both the elementary school and the combined high school and middle school building. These projects are currently awaiting review by New York State’s Department of Education and won’t likely be completed until this summer or later.

Other districts have taken the step of hiring armed guards for their schools, such as Mount Sinai and Miller Place, but Casciano said the point when security becomes overwhelming for students is when “kids feel like they’re going into a prison.”

“It’s a community decision,” he added.

The cover of Chris Brady’s new children’s book. Photo from Brady

By Melissa Arnold

On Dec. 14, 2012, 20 children and six adults were killed in a mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. Chris Brady, 33, of Rocky Point, was profoundly impacted by the events of that day and has spent the past three years developing “Twenty-­Six Angels,” a children’s book inspired by those who died. The book was published on Nov. 13, and Brady hopes it will inspire children and adults alike to spread peace in our world.

I recently sat down with Brady to learn more about the book and what he hopes for the future.

Tell me a bit about your background.  What got you interested in writing?
I’ve always had an artist’s spirit. Writing has always been my way of chronicling my life. I have a book of probably a hundred poems that have gotten me through so many experiences. But I always wanted to be an actor and singer, so those things were always in the forefront. I’ve worked in retail and in the fitness industry, and also have a master’s degree in health care administration. Writing is kind of my hidden talent, but this story was something I needed to share.

How would you describe the book to someone who hasn’t read it?
It covers the theme of nonviolence and how the power of youth can combat evil in any circumstance. It’s about putting down your weapons, whether that’s guns, negative emotions or poor treatment of others.
In the book, the halos of angels light up when they sing. That light banishes everything evil in the world. When the book begins, there aren’t enough angels and the world is in despair. Then, 26 new angels are born. They face a lot of doubt from the older angels, but they’re given a try and are sent to bring a message of peace and nonviolence to the world.
I stayed away from any kind of religious elements. ­­ I chose to use angels because of the way they’re glorified in our culture, and there’s something cherubic about children. I thought it would be a nice symbol to use.

Chris Brady photo from the author
Chris Brady photo from the author

What inspired you to write about the Sandy Hook tragedy?
(The day of the shooting), I remember pulling my car over and listening to all the broadcasts. ­­ I was fixated on them. It was horrible listening to parents wondering if their child was alive, and I couldn’t imagine what they were going through. On 9/11, I was downtown (in New York City) and used writing to work through that, so it’s not surprising that I felt the need to write about this as well.
I was the choreographer for three years at Rocky Point Middle School and worked with sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders. The book was partially linked to that experience of collaborating on an art that teaches the students to use their talents in a positive way.
Having worked with middle schoolers, I asked myself, what would I say to these kids? I’ve found myself suffering through tragedy and trying to cope with things I couldn’t understand, and I thought about what I would say to a younger me, as well as the families and loved ones of children who have lost their lives.
There’s something so unbelievably pure about first-graders. I told myself there has to be a way to brighten people’s lives in the absence of these children, and it’s happening. You can choose to either wallow in the darkness or make something brighter out of life. This was my way of balancing out the darkness with light and combat unspeakable evil with incredible good.
Obviously, one story can’t fix everything. But if we continue to give back to the people left behind, light really will shine through that darkness.

Who is the ideal audience for “Twenty­-six Angels”?
The book says ages 4 to 8, but I really think it would be appropriate for kids 6 to 10 or even 6 to 12. It can speak to all children and has a timeless feel. The poetry is a little bit elevated, but because it’s sing­song (in style) and rhymes, it’s easy for young children to grab onto. I read the book to a group of 4-­year­-olds and they definitely understood the message, which was great to see. Beyond that, it’s really for anybody looking for comfort. I’ve had an equally strong response from adults and children.

The book is written entirely in rhyme. Why did you choose this format?
With this subject and the idea of creating a song together, I thought rhyme would be most effective for the message.

How can parents or other adults use this book to help the children in their lives?
The first thing that you can teach a child is the difference between play and reality. We can play pirates and Jedis, but they really have no business with a weapon. That might be an unpopular opinion for some, but it’s what I believe. All of us are capable of violence, and children need to learn to channel their passions in a positive way.

What are your plans for the future?
I’m hoping to take any proceeds from the book and use them to help the people of Newtown in any way I can. I learned recently that many people are just showing up there to help out. This book belongs first and foremost in the hands of the people affected by the tragedy. It’s not about the profits for me.

Where can we get the book? How much is it?
You can find the book at all of the major online retailers, as well was www.archwaypublishing.com. The more interest there is, the more likely we’ll be to get it on shelves in the future, too. It’s available in hardcover for $22.95, softcover for $16.95 and as a digital e­book for $3.99.

Where can people learn more about you or contact you?
You can always email me at chrisbrady22@gmail.com. You can also find out more on the book’s Facebook page, “Twenty­Six Angels ­ Children’s Book Launch.”

Chris Brady will hold a book signing on Saturday, Jan. 16, at Theatre Three, 412 Main St., Port Jefferson, at 11 a.m. For more information, call 631-928-9100.

Jack Blaum speaks at a Three Village board of education meeting. File photo

In the years since the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting — a horror further punctuated by recent college shootings — safety continues to be a top priority for Three Village school officials.

Security & Safety coordinator Jack Blaum detailed the district’s efforts at a recent school board meeting. The past year has seen the installation of vestibules in school lobbies, card key entryways, emergency training for staff and safety drills with students during school hours.

Blaum said an analysis of the recent shooting at Umpqua Community College in Oregon reveals that such tragedies have three things in common: motive, means and opportunity.

“The one thing we have total control over is opportunity,” Blaum said, last Wednesday. “The opportunity is keeping our buildings closed when we’re in session.”

That is ensured by posting additional full-day security officers at each elementary school, as well as an additional full-day and half-day officer at the junior highs, he said. Security guards are also posted at each entrance to the high school.

The security staff — which is made up of either active or retired law enforcement personnel — checks visitors who must enter an enclosed vestibule before entering a building. Greeters are responsible for late arrivals, early dismissals and helping visitors once they’ve been allowed to enter.

Blaum said that he and his team would begin to train district staff to use the CrisisManager app, which holds the district’s protocol for dealing with different crises. The app offers the advantage of being easier to reference during a real crisis than a paper flow chart, Blaum explained. Parents and students can also download the free app.

In other details, Blaum said the district is constructing a “command center,” with 11 video monitors at the back of the North Country Administration Building. He said the center would make it easier for the superintendent to monitor incidents remotely and help with any investigations.

Across the district, emergency phones — “bat phones,” according to Blaum — connect directly to the Suffolk County police communications supervisor in Yaphank.

“Lockdown buttons,” located throughout each building, will trigger an automated lockdown message, disable key card access to all but emergency personnel and set off sirens and a blue strobe light to alert those outside the building that the school is on lockdown.

Besides the additional cameras installed throughout the district, including the Ward Melville High School football field, there is also a law enforcement presence on weekends and holidays, Blaum said.

Though the district’s advantage is in controlling opportunity, Blaum emphasized the importance of recognizing and reporting changes in student or staff behavior. He reminded the community to use the Safe School Helpline to report safety concerns.

“If you take out one part of motive, means and opportunity, the shooting can’t happen,” he said.

As mandated by the State Education Department, building emergency plans and layouts have been filed with New York State police and distributed to Suffolk County police and the Setauket and Stony Brook Fire Departments.

Buses for all

In another move aimed at student safety, the district will provide busing for everyone. Currently, Three Village provides busing for all elementary school students, but not for junior high students who live less than a mile from school or high schoolers less than a mile and a half away.

“It is the single biggest complaint,” assistant superintendent for business services Jeff Carlson said.

He pointed specifically to the danger posed to students crossing Nicolls Road to get to R.C. Murphy Junior High School. He also mentioned those who have to walk along Christian Avenue, Quaker Path or Mudd Road — which have no sidewalks— to P.J. Gelinas Junior High School. There is also an issue of safety for high school students walking along Sheep Pasture Road, he said.

The three additional buses would cost $220,000, but transportation aid from the state would be around $100,000, he said. With more state aid to further lower the cost, the increase to the tax levy would be around $10,000, Carlson said.

Residents must vote on an amendment to the busing guidelines in a proposition that is separate from the budget.

The school board unanimously voted to add the proposition to the May ballots.

“That’s our duty, our obligation to keep all our students safe,” said board trustee Jeff Kerman, who seemed to sum up the sentiments of his colleagues.