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School Safety

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. 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.”

State Sen. John Flanagan. File photo

The New York State Legislature is working to make schools safer in the aftermath of the Feb. 14 shooting at a Florida high school. But the Republican-held Senate and Democrat-majority Assembly are not yet on the same page in figuring out how to accomplish the goal.

The Senate passed a package of bills March 6 aimed at improving school safety through various security-related measures. After a package of gun legislation bills — which included measures to create a stronger background check process, ban bump stocks or accessories that increase a semi-automatic weapon’s rate of fire, establish extreme risk protection orders, and more — brought forward by Senate Democrats failed in late February, the Assembly also passed a package of bills March 6 designed to strengthen gun laws. Several of the bills in the Assembly package were the same as versions voted down in the Senate. It remains to be seen if either house will pass their counterparts respective packages.

Bellone announces school safety initiative

Schools in Suffolk County will now be offered a permanent eye in the sky.

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone (D) announced the SHARE initiative March 9, a program that will allow districts the ability to connect existing camera systems directly to the Suffolk County Police Department. The system would enhance the efficiency of a police department response to an active shooter situation, according to a press release from Bellone’s office.

“We will do whatever it takes to protect our schools by utilizing every available tool and partnership at our disposal,” the county executive said in a statement. “The SHARE initiative will provide law enforcement the enhanced capabilities needed to respond to a security risk, and I look forward to working with our superintendents and stakeholders on how we can keep our schools safe.”

The county will hold a meeting of all school district superintendents March 15 to formally seek voluntary consent with the districts interested in the program.

“We have been preparing and training for the nightmare scenario that we hope never happens,” District Attorney Tim Sini (D) said in a statement. “In the police department, we enhanced our readiness for an active shooter scenario or a terrorist attack, but most importantly to take measures to prevent those incidents.”

“I have every hope that we can walk and chew gum at the same time because these are not mutually exclusive directions, and they are very complementary,” Assemblyman Steve Englebright (D-Setauket) said in an interview. The Assemblyman said he hadn’t had a chance to fully study the package of bills passed in the Senate yet, but at first glance it included some initiatives he’d be comfortable supporting. “I would just appeal to my colleagues in the Senate to meet us halfway, and I would pledge to do the same for them. I think we all should keep our eye on what the objective is here, which is to save lives and ultimately there is no single measure that is going to be an omnibus solve.”

The passed Senate package includes a bill authorizing districts to receive state funding to hire a school resource officer, defined in the bill to include retired or active duty police officers, deputy sheriffs or state troopers. They would be permitted to carry firearms on school grounds if licensed to do so. Another bill increased the earnings limitations for retired police officers being employed by schools from $30,000 annually to $50,000. A bill was also included in the package that will provide state education aid to districts for acquiring safety technology and improving security.

“Schools must be safe havens, where students can learn and teachers can teach,” Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan (R-East Northport) said in a statement. “In New York, we must act swiftly and decisively to implement additional measures in schools throughout our state to give students, parents, and teachers the resources and peace of mind that they deserve.”

The Senate’s package also had components designed to improve school-based mental health services. One bill allocates districts $50,000 in state funding to put towards hiring a mental health services coordinator, while another requires the state Department of Education to investigate and report on the number of full and part-time school counselors, school social workers and school psychologists in each school; the ratio of students to the number of school counselors; the ratio of students to the number of school social workers; the ratio of students to the number of school psychologists in each school; and when such staff is working in more than one school.

As part of the package, another bill was passed defining school shootings as an act of terrorism, which now makes the New York State Intelligence Center in cooperation with the state Division of Homeland Security responsible for the collection, integration, receipt, processing, evaluation, analysis, fusing, dissemination, sharing, and maintenance of intelligence information to aid in detecting, preventing, investigating and responding to acts of terrorism, including school shootings. Now suspects who discharge a firearm within 1,000 feet of a school can be charged with committing an act of terrorism.

The bills in the Senate’s package passed with overwhelming, bipartisan support in most cases. They will now head to the Assembly before arriving, if passed, at Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s (D) desk for signing into law.

The package that passed the Assembly, if eventually passed by the Senate and signed by Cuomo, would temporarily prohibit individuals from purchasing or possessing guns if a family member or law enforcement officer petitions a court and the court finds individuals are likely to engage in conduct that would harm themselves or others.

It also would establish a 10-day waiting period before a gun may be delivered to a purchaser who has not cleared a background check. Under current federal law, gun dealers must conduct a background check through the National Instant Criminal Background Check System before selling a firearm. The NICS system responds with one of three messages — “proceed,” “denied” or “delayed.” The dealer must deny the sale if the NICS background check determines the buyer is a prohibited purchaser and responds with a “denied” message. However, if the response is “delayed,” the dealer may nonetheless complete the sale after three business days.

Also included in the package is a bill preventing convicted domestic abusers from purchasing or possessing a firearm.

Spokespersons for Flanagan and state Sen. Ken LaValle (R-Port Jefferson) did not immediately respond to a request for comment asking if they intend to support the package of legislation passed by the Assembly.

Parents also speak of concerns of notification of recent school threat

Shoreham-Wading River High School. Photo by Kevin Redding

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

— Kathleen Loscalzo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Discussion also comes in wake of Parkland, Florida shootin

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

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

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

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

“He doesn’t have access to weapons.”

— James Strack

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

— Paul Casciano

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Teachers with guns make me nervous.”

— Paul Casciano

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

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

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

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

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

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

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We’ve been here before. A shooter kills and maims unarmed, innocent American citizens, and according to the people elected to represent us, it’s never quite the right time to discuss gun control.

House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wisconsin) told us last week, now “is not the time to jump to some conclusion,” adding the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, was not about guns, but about “pure evil.”

We’re glad students from the high school have rebuked Ryan and his ilk who, as a church sign in Australia put it over the weekend, “love guns more than their kids.” If students who experienced the horror in Florida Feb. 14 firsthand are ready to talk about change, we’re with them.

However, we’ll go along with the speaker’s flawed premise and offer some thoughts about the latest mass shooting in the United States without politicizing the discussion:

• First, let’s honor the heroes who put themselves in harm’s way, some, making the ultimate sacrifice for their colleagues and classmates. While many have heard of teacher Scott Beigel, 35, who grew up in Dix Hills and died shielding students from gunfire, have you heard of Anthony Borges? Anthony is a 15-year-old student fighting for his life who saved 20 lives as he attempted to close and lock a classroom door. He was shot five times — in both legs, his upper left thigh and his back. His thigh bone was shattered.

• Are all threats taken seriously? A neighbor reported the shooter’s social media account to the FBI in January, making note of his “gun ownership, desire to kill people, erratic behavior and disturbing social media posts, as well as the potential of him conducting a school shooting,” a statement from the FBI read. But nothing was done. Every single hostile message, no matter how small, needs to be noted and handled accordingly. Police need to investigate every threat or mention of harm or disturbance, while schools and their therapists should monitor every student suspect from then on out.

• We are extremely impressed by the grace and maturity students from the high school have displayed in their public thoughts on the tragedy. Lasting change being brought about by young voices should be what America is all about. While many had lost hope, grieving students cried out. Yes, it was a terrible tragedy that should never have happened, as is said each and every time a mass shooting occurs, but again nothing is being done. This is why there are plans for a March For Our Lives stomp on March 24 in Washington, D.C., where the people will bring the power. “We are up here standing together, because if all our government and president can do is send thoughts and prayers, then it’s time for the victims to be the change that we need to see,” said 18-year-old Emma González. We admire the Parkland high school senior, and the many other students who took to podiums to voice their opinions, concerns and anger. They have a right to be mad, and even more, a right to be heard. David Hogg, a 17-year-old student who survived the shooting, had a similar, strong message to legislators: “Politicians and more importantly the American public must take action if we’re going to prevent the next shooting. To elected officials I say this, ‘Don’t lie to us. Don’t make any more false promises, because when you do, children die.’” He called the time a turning point in American history “where students stand up and speak out — when the politicians won’t.” We hope to see that happen. In the face of division, standing up is not for any political agenda but for the lives of the innocent, like young school children.

As Emma González said, and, yes, now we’ll talk about guns: “They say that tougher gun laws do not decrease gun violence. We call B.S.” So do we, Emma.