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Suffolk County Sheriff Errol Toulon Jr.

Mark Barden, a founder of the nonprofit Sandy Hook Promise, presents violence prevention strategies to a room full of Suffolk lawmakers and school officials during an Aug. 16 event at St. Joseph's College in Patchogue as Sheriff Errol Toulon Jr. looks on. Photo by Alex Petroski

On Dec. 14, 2012, a mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut left more than 20 people dead, mostly first-graders, shocking the world and changing it permanently. Much of that change can be attributed to the efforts of those who were most personally impacted by the tragic events of that day.

Parents from Sandy Hook were invited to St. Joseph’s College in Patchogue Aug. 16 by Suffolk County Sheriff’s office to share details about four programs they’ve created aimed at preventing violence in schools to a room packed with Suffolk County school district superintendents, administrators and lawmakers.

Sandy Hook Promise, a national nonprofit organization, was founded by parents including Mark Barden, a professional musician originally from Yonkers who had moved to Newtown in 2007 with his wife to raise their three kids. His son, Daniel, was seven years old  when he was killed during the tragedy.

“It is very real and a very personal mission that I do this work to honor that kid, who we used to jokingly call ‘the caretaker of all living things,’ because that’s how he lived his life,” Barden said of his son.

He said Daniel was known for trying to connect with other kids he saw eating alone, for holding doors for strangers in public, and for picking up earthworms from the hot sidewalk and moving them to safety in the grass, among other instinctual acts of kindness he regularly displayed.

“It is very real and a very personal mission that I do this work to honor that kid, who we used to jokingly call ‘the caretaker of all living things,’ because that’s how he lived his life.”

— Mark Barden

“That’s how I’ve chosen to honor his life is through this work,” Barden said.

Sandy Hook Promise’s approach to carrying out its mission of preventing all gun-related deaths can be viewed as an extension of Daniel’s legacy of caring for those in need. Barden was joined Aug. 16 by two other members of the organization — Myra Leuci, national account manager, and Marykay Wishneski, national program coordinator — who detailed the initiatives the nonprofit pitches to school districts interested in improving their prevention strategies.

The four strategies , which fall under the nonprofit’s Know the Signs program, are taught to youth and adults free of charge in the hopes of fostering an environment that empowers everyone in the community to help identify and intervene when someone is at risk.

Say Something is an anonymous reporting system that teaches kids how to recognize warning signs, especially on social media, and gives them an outlet to get adults involved. Start With Hello is a training program that teaches students how to be more inclusive and connected to peers. Safety Assessment & Intervention program is geared toward adults and aims to teach them how to identify, assess and respond to threats of violence or at-risk behavior prior to a situation developing. The Signs of Suicide program teaches people how to identify and intervene to get help for those displaying signs of depression or suicidal behavior. The nonprofit offers in-person training for each program, though Say Something and Start With Hello are available to be downloaded and self-led by interested districts.

Since assuming office in January, Suffolk County Sheriff Errol Toulon Jr. said he has made improving school safety and developing uniform, countywide approaches a top priority. Just a few weeks into his tenure, the country was rocked by the mass shooting Feb. 14 at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida where 17 people were killed by a lone gunman.

“It’s an obligation that I feel I have as the Suffolk County Sheriff, to work with all of our partners, but I do feel I cannot stand on the sidelines and just watch,” Toulon said. “We really have to be proactive. Everyone from our police departments, our school administrators, everybody’s taking this banner on. Thankfully we’re all working together to really keep our communities and our children safe.”

Toulon has offered free safety assessments on a voluntary basis to interested districts. Suffolk Executive Steve Bellone (D) has taken several steps  already to improve schools’ safety including starting an initiative that allows interested districts to grant access to in-school security cameras to the police department, and securing funds for a mobile phone application for municipal workers and school district employees that can be activated and used in the event of an active shooter situation to notify law enforcement. Bellone announced new initiatives to increase police patrols in school buildings, assign additional officers to the SCPD’s Homeland Security Section and establish a text tip line to report troubling activities this month.

“We are educators, so partnering with law enforcement and those with the skilled lens of how to best ensure the safety of our students has been paramount,” said Ken Bossert, president of Suffolk County Superintendents Association who leads Elwood school district. “So the focus and attention that law enforcement has paid on our schools is just greatly appreciated.”

Representatives from districts across the North Shore attended the informational forum and expressed interest in implementing some or all of what Sandy Hook Promise has to offer, including Huntington Superintendent James Polansky and Port Jefferson Superintendent Paul Casciano.

“It shows that our sheriff has a pulse on the public safety worries of our parents.”

— Kara Hahn

“A lot of what we heard today I’m going to roll out just informationally to my administrative staff,” Polansky said, adding Huntington has taken up Toulon on his offer to assess building safety already. “We’re actually looking to pursue a lot of the initiatives Sandy Hook Promise has to offer.”

Casciano expressed a similar sentiment.

“It’s a great resource, and we’re very interested in pursuing it,” he said. “We’ll be making our contacts.”

Several attendees commended Toulon for embracing a leadership role on school safety, including Suffolk County District Attorney Tim Sini (D), who was among the wide array of lawmakers at the event along with the school officials.

“It shows that our sheriff has a pulse on the public safety worries of our parents,” said county Legislator Kara Hahn (D-Setauket), who is a licensed social worker. She called Toulon’s approach incredibly important. “It shows that he has the recognition that when you have a shooter at the door of a school, it’s too late, and this really needs to be about prevention. We cannot police this, we need to prevent this. And that’s what this is about.”

Bossert said superintendents in the county have been working to put together a uniform blueprint for school safety and are planning to roll it out later this month. For more information about Sandy Hook Promise, visit www.sandyhookpromise.org.

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It’s the end of July so it’s likely the minds of students, administrators and parents have drifted far away from the hallways of their schools, away from school board meetings and discussions about funding safety improvements. It’s understandable. But following an in-office, exclusive interview with Suffolk County Sheriff Errol Toulon Jr. (D) July 20, county residents should sleep well knowing he has allowed himself no such break.

Hardening schools for the worst-case scenario — an intruder entering a local school with the means and intent to impose lethal, widespread harm — has become a top priority for districts across the country since the February shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, that left 17 people dead. In the absence of substantive action on tightening gun laws with commonsense reform coming from the increasingly feckless Washington anytime soon, local municipalities and schools have had to get creative.

This week, Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone (D) signed a bill permitting the county to pursue bond funding for a mobile application that government employees and school administrators will be able to download and use to directly contact law enforcement in the event of a shooting at a school or government building. In the aftermath of Parkland, Bellone announced an initiative that would allow districts interested in participating to grant access to school security systems to the Suffolk County Police Department, so that in the case of an emergency, law enforcement can see exactly what’s going on in the school. New York State passed its own set of bills in the spring as well, mostly geared toward allocating funds to districts interested in securing infrastructure or hiring additional security or mental health personnel.

These plans are a great start, especially, again, since we would all turn blue in the face holding our breath waiting for Congress. But Toulon raised some issues that seemed to us like they needed to be heard.

When asked if he could wave a magic wand and grant one thing to all 69 of Suffolk’s school districts to make them more secure, he identified establishing uniform practices countywide for training security — armed or otherwise — so that responders have a better feel for what they’re walking into should one of these dark days strike close to home. Uncertainty about what to expect between police and school district security should be the last thing either should be worried about in the midst of a frantic mission to save lives.

Further, Toulon said he has made his office available to districts interested in having their security practices assessed on a voluntary basis. So far, he said just 10 of the 69 districts have taken him up on the offer. We’d like to see that number reach 100 percent by the end of this year.

In addition, the sheriff’s office plans to host a forum for Suffolk school superintendents Aug. 16 at St. Joseph’s College in Patchogue to talk broadly about school security and to share ideas. The offices of the sheriff and county executive have not let this issue fade away during the summer months, and we hope schools haven’t forgotten either.

Suffolk County Sheriff Errol Toulon Jr. speaks during an interviw at TBR News Media in Setauket July 20. Photo by Kyle Barr

Seven months into Suffolk County Sheriff Errol Toulon Jr.’s (D-Lake Grove) term, several issues have become top priorities. He sat for an exclusive interview at the TBR News Media office with the editorial staff July 20 to detail the road ahead.

Staffing issues within Sheriff’s office

The sheriff’s office is short-staffed specifically due to officers retiring or leaving for higher paying jobs elsewhere, according to Toulon.

“I’m almost signing one to two retirement letters a day,” he said. “We just lost two — one going to [Metropolitan Transportation Authority] police and one going to the New York City Police Academy. I’m expecting to lose two in the near future; more going to other law enforcement [jobs].”

The department is short on 76 mandated posts that the two county corrections facilities are supposed to have. This has led to an increase in overtime for existing corrections personnel. Toulon said he sees the low starting salary for Suffolk County corrections officers as the primary driver of the staff shortage. Those in the positions are paid $30,000 per year initially, reaching about $76,000 after 12 years. Starting salaries in Nassau County or New York City corrections are about $10,000 more.

“The people in our custody that have detainers are not good people. I wouldn’t want them on our streets – I wouldn’t care what their status is.”

— Errol Toulon Jr.

Toulon said 30 people will be graduating from the county academy Aug. 8 to fill some of the vacancies.

A pay raise would have to be approved by the Suffolk County Legislature, though Toulon said he supports it.

School Security

As the occurrences of school shootings seemingly increase nationally, especially after the Feb. 14 shooting in Parkland, Florida, security has become a hot topic amongst school districts and communities. The sheriff’s office is working on the issue as well. Toulon said getting everybody on the same page when it comes to securing schools is a tough but essential job, which requires coordination between school security, police departments and the sheriff’s office.

“When you are going into these schools you frequently realize some of these schools have armed security, some have unarmed security, and some have security that are armed because they hired retired law enforcement, and it’s not publicized,” Toulon said.

School security officers obviously do not have standards as far as uniforms across county school districts. Further confusing local law enforcement, each school might have different protocols in engaging an active shooter, whether they will actively engage the shooter with a firearm or focus on getting the children to safety.

Toulon said he and his officers have gone into schools at the request of the districts to perform security assessments. So far 10 out of 69 school districts in Suffolk County have taken the Sheriff’s department up on the offer.

Toulon said an ideal setup might be having standardized training for all school districts and school security officers in the county not only so they would know what to do in a school fire, bomb or shooting scenario, but also because it would train them to interact with any local police that arrive on the scene.

The sheriff’s office plans to host a forum for Suffolk County school superintendents August 16 at St. Joseph’s College in Patchogue to talk broadly about school security and to share ideas.

Dealing with gangs and immigration officials

Toulon said that while county jails only hold people charged with local crimes, they do work with the federal Immigrations and Customs Enforcement agency when it comes to some inmates.

“I’m almost signing one to two retirement letters a day.”

— Errol Toulon Jr.

“The sheriff’s office doesn’t profile people,” Toulon said. “If you blow a stop sign or a red light, we are going to pull you over. The people in our custody that have detainers are not good people. I wouldn’t want them on our streets – I wouldn’t care what their status is.”

Toulon stressed that the sheriff’s department does not participate on any ICE raids. He advised the immigrant community to know their Miranda Rights, that they do not have to communicate to police without a lawyer, and that anyone concerned about an arrest could contact the sheriff’s office.

Many people in local communities are concerned about activities perpetrated by the local incarnations of the MS-13 gang. Several high-profile gang murders were prosecuted in the past few years, including the 2017 murder of two young girls in Brentwood, complicating community-law enforcement relations and heating up a polarized, politically-based national discourse. Stories of abuses of power carried out by the federal agency, mostly in areas nearer to the southern border, have not been representative of the Suffolk County Sheriff’s Office’s dealings with ICE, Toulon said, adding that he would not tolerate inappropriate behavior from any uniformed officer within the facilities he oversees, be them staff under his purview or otherwise.

Toulon said comments made by President Donald Trump (R) on the matter have made his job tougher, especially when dealing with local immigrant communities.

“The tensions that I see in the immigrant community come from what they see going on in the rest of the country,” Toulon said. “The fact that our current president tweets about it and makes comments about a whole population – that is not fair, it makes my job a lot more difficult.”

Suffolk County Sheriff Errol Toulon Jr., second from right, joined by his wife Tina, right, Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone during his inauguration Jan. 12. Photo by Kevin Redding

Just days before the nation celebrates Martin Luther King Jr. and his famous dream, Errol Toulon (D) made history by taking the oath as Suffolk County Sheriff, making him Long Island’s first African-American elected official in a nonjudicial countywide position.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo administers the oath of office to Errol Toulon Jr., Suffolk County’s new sheriff, during his inauguration ceremony Jan. 12. Photo by Kevin Redding

Toulon, 55, was officially sworn in by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) Jan. 12 during an inauguration ceremony held at Van Nostrand Theater on the Brentwood campus of Suffolk County Community College in the company of his wife, Tina Toulon, family members, friends and town and county elected officials, including County Executive Steve Bellone (D), recently sworn-in District Attorney Tim Sini (D), Presiding Officer DuWayne Gregory (D-Amityville) and former sheriff Vincent DeMarco (C). A former Rikers Island corrections officer and captain who emerged victorious against Republican candidate Larry Zacarese after just two months of campaigning, Toulon entered the race determined to utilize his more than 35 years in corrections and law enforcement to tackle gangs and the opioid crisis, while creating a stronger environment within the county’s jails.

“I have to say, this is a long way from my days being a batboy with the New York Yankees,” Toulon laughed, referring to his two-year stint in the 1970s serving on the team. “For me, this race was a whirlwind, but this job is one I’ve been preparing for my entire life.”

After serving at Rikers Island from 1982 to 2004, Toulon, starting in 2012, worked for two years in Bellone’s administration as assistant deputy county executive for public safety and in 2014 was named deputy commissioner of operations for the New York City Department of Corrections. In the midst of his career, he has also beaten cancer twice — in 1996 and 2004.

“He is a man who has confronted great challenges in his life,” Bellone said. “I have personally seen him face these difficulties with incredible grace and dignity and fortitude. He has confronted all these challenges and has perseverance, which is exactly what you want to have in a leader. I am proud to be here today to support a friend, a colleague and a leader.”

During the ceremony, Cuomo called attention to the historical significance of Toulon’s victory.

“It says something about the people of Suffolk County, says something about the progress of society, says something about acceptance and it says that we’re one step closer to Martin Luther King’s dream of one day judging people by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin,” Cuomo said. “This sheriff is different in a number of ways, but the first precedent he sets is that he’s the most qualified man to ever serve in this position … I am selfishly overjoyed by Sheriff Toulon’s election because in government, job number one is public safety.”

“This sheriff is different in a number of ways, but the first precedent he sets is that he’s the most qualified man to ever serve in this position.”

— Andrew Cuomo

Toulon assured the cheering audience he is committed to making the county a better and safer place for all, with plans in place to continue and create initiatives in the sheriff’s office to combat gang and substance abuse-related problems, as well as rehabilitation services and re-entry programs for those incarcerated. He also said the office, under his leadership, will routinely participate in community events, civic association meetings and will do everything in its power to prevent young people from going down the wrong path.

“I am ready to work and I am ready to lead,” Toulon said. “We have to ensure that we deliver as a society and assist those who need help and keep those who do harm off our streets. These gangs might think they’re tough, these gang members might think they have all the answers and can outsmart us, but they’re going to have a lot of time to think about their decisions when they’re sitting behind bars because they were no match for the men and women in the Suffolk County Sheriff’s Office.”

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