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armed guards

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By Emma Gutmann

After a months-long search and evaluation process, the Smithtown Central School District Board of Education unanimously approved a contract with an armed security vendor during its Tuesday, June 27, meeting. 

The district reached out to 21 vendors, of which six responded. The evaluation committee’s five-pronged rubric scored proposals based on cost, references, relevant experience, understanding of the project and implementation plan and schedule. 

With an anticipated expenditure of $850,000 for the 2023-24 school year, the district deemed Ronkonkoma-based security and investigative agency Covert Investigations & Security the proper fit.

With the security firm approved and the contract in effect as of July 1, the next step is to introduce the security detail to the facilities, coordinate with the Suffolk County Police Department and post guards throughout the district. The contract is valid until June 30, 2024, with the agreement subject to termination by the district under certain circumstances.

Covert Investigations & Security’s website touts its teams’ expertise from police and fire service, homeland security and emergency management agencies. They have about 20 years of experience with school safety and protect approximately 75,000 students.

In an email, Jamie Stuart, communications consultant for the district, said the school district declined to comment further than what was said in the February 15 community letter from Superintendent Mark Secaur and the BOE, which is available on the district’s website.

“The rationale for this security enhancement is simple: Having armed guards on school grounds will improve our response time in order to better protect our students, faculty, staff and community members who are in and around our building on a daily basis,” the letter reads.

The school will not be at liberty to expose specific details such as “guard deployment, locations, and working hours as it may compromise their safety and effectiveness.” However, the letter promised guards would not be stationed within the school buildings or interfere with daily operations or activities. 

Guards would also have mandatory training sessions every year and be required to “requalify through performance-based assessments to ensure they will perform at an optimal level if ever called upon.”

Although the BOE meeting made the matter seem unambiguous, not all community members are content with implementing armed security. Representing the discontented peers he interviewed, Andrew Guidi, a recent alumnus of Smithtown High School East, has appeared before the board twice, highlighting the stance that heightened security can be counterintuitive. 

“I researched this topic more, and I found out there’s no clear evidence that supports the theory that firearms help prevent violence in schools,” Guidi told the BOE during its June 13 meeting. “The only thing this decision is succeeding at is making the people who attend these schools feel unsafe and uncomfortable.”

It remains to be seen whether the enhanced security measures will promote a more relaxed or unsettled environment for the students and faculty they were designed to protect.

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Mark Secaur. Photo from Smithtown Central School District website

By Sabrina Artusa

During the Smithtown Central School District Board of Education meeting on June 13, the board was divided on the motion to amend Superintendent Mark Secaur’s contract. 

The amendment’s immediate implications were unclear, but discussion suggests that the amendment would raise the superintendent’s salary. However, the specific conditions of the amendment were undisclosed.

“I think this moves him up toward the middle of the pack,” said Vice President Michael Saidens to board members. “Monetarily, I don’t think there is anything in there that is astronomical.” According to data released by the New York State Education Department in May, Secaur’s salary is $259,984 and he receives $62,806 in benefits. 

Stacy Murphy, one of the trustees who opposed the motion, was uncomfortable with the amendment. “We are putting ourselves in a position where the superintendent’s contract ends in the middle of the school year,” she said. “What’s the rush?”

BOE President Mathew Gribbin supports the movement, although he declined to publicly answer Murphy’s question. Gribbin lauded Secaur’s performance as superintendent. Proponents of the movement, such as Gribbin and Saidens, made it clear that they want to ensure that Secaur stays in the position long-term.

 “I hope Mark is here for 10 dozen years. I think he is the right man to do the work,” Saidens said. 

Murphy and fellow trustee John Savoretti question the details of the contract. Gribbin said that the contract was distributed to the board a week before, but Savoretti said there was no opportunity for discussion prior to the meeting. Gribbin neglected to publicly reveal the motivation behind the amendment, stating “extenuated circumstances” influenced the motion and that he is “not at liberty to discuss.”

The argument led to one audience member, Andrea Elsky, to criticize the board’s disunity. Elsky told the board to have a “special meeting” beforehand and to remember that they are “one board.” “It’s a disgrace,” she said, a sentiment that was met with applause from the audience.

On a different issue, Kevin Simmons, the assistant superintendent for instruction and administration, presented a new approach to the Disabilities Education Act.  Simmons talked of a data-driven approach to identify trouble areas, and thereby direct assistance to the students that need it. Simmons acknowledged the disparities among certain subgroups and mentioned potential fixes, such as counseling and course catalog revisions.

Bringing up another concern, Smithtown High School East senior Andrew Guidi, spoke to the board about their decision to arm security guards. The February decision has received both criticism and support from Smithtown residents. This was Guidi’s second time approaching the board asking them to reconsider. 

“If it has been seen that armed guards do not help prevent violence, and it actively is making people feel unsafe as an effect, why would this decision be passed?” he asked the board. Guidi said many of his peers feel unsettled knowing that they are in such close proximity to a deadly weapon, “no matter who is in possession of such a weapon”. 

Gribbin responded that there wasn’t a clear solution to the threat of mass shootings, but he hoped the fact that there is protection would “ease people’s minds.”

Smithtown school district's administrative Joseph M. Barton building on New York Avenue. Photo by Kyle Barr

In February, the Smithtown Central School District Board of Education opted to bolster school security by adding armed security guards to the exterior perimeter of its schools.

Since the decision, some students have opposed the new policy. While the school district has not yet employed armed security, Maddox Elbert, a freshman at Smithtown High School East, preemptively organized a petition calling upon the school board to reverse the decision.

“There’s a multitude of reasons why armed guards shouldn’t be in any school,” Elbert said in a phone interview, noting the costs associated with the plan. 

It is projected to cost $800,000 to employ these armed guards, Elbert indicated, a price tag more than eight times more costly than a proposed mental health initiative from Northwell Health that has been widely controversial in the community.

Elbert argued that mental health initiatives are more effective in mitigating armed violence at schools than employing armed guards, citing a study from University of Albany and the RAND Corporation that found that school resource officers “do not prevent school shootings or gun-related incidents.” Elbert added that death rates are actually higher for school shootings in schools that employ armed guards than in those that don’t.

The school board has focused more on appearances and less on addressing the issue at hand, Elbert said. “God forbid there was a situation, they could say that they did something when really it would be doing the opposite.”

Elbert also expressed concerns over the proximity of firearms to school grounds. “Armed guards are proven to increase anxiety levels and stress levels, which can lead to a mental health crisis,” he said.

In a letter dated Feb. 15, Superintendent of Schools Mark Secaur and BOE members argued that their primary reasoning for this initiative was to increase response times for potential active-shooter incidents.

“Having armed guards on school grounds will improve our response time in order to better protect our students, faculty, staff and community members who are in and around our buildings on a daily basis,” the letter stated.

School officials also maintained that the guards would only be stationed in the exterior of the buildings, and that they would not “comment on specific details, such as guard deployments, locations and working hours as it may compromise their safety and effectiveness.”

Elbert presented his concerns to the school board in an April meeting. He said that he and BOE President Matthew Gribbin had agreed to disagree on best practices for protecting schools.

The student organizer hoped something might change, encouraging the board to consider changing its course. To read the full petition, visit: www.change.org/p/remove-armed-guards-from-smithtown-schools.

When contacted for further comment on this topic, a district spokesperson stated: “The district is not providing any comments outside of the community letter.”

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High School East sophomore Abigail Brennan was recognized by the board of education April 11 for her recent accomplishments at the FIRST Long Island Regional Championship at Hofstra University. Photo from Smithtown Central School District

By Leah Chiappino

During the April 11 Smithtown Central School District Board of Education meeting, the district honored students who achieved high placements in the Robotics Competition and DECA state finals, where each competitor chooses to compete in one of four career clusters: marketing, business management and administration, hospitality and tourism, or finance. 

The district also passed policies relating to time-out rooms, and updates to the Freedom of Information Act. 

Armed guards 

During the public participation portion of the meeting, Maddox Elbert, Smithtown High School East’s Class of ’26 president, spoke out against the district’s February decision to hire armed guards. 

“I’m not a criminal,” he said. “My classmates are not criminals and my teachers are not criminals. Stop treating us like them.”

He went on to cite a variety of statistics and arguments against armed guards, including increased anxiety and cases in which armed guards were on campus during shootings.

Matthew Gribbin, BOE president, thanked Elbert for expressing his concerns, noting the decision was not made lightly and offering to discuss it with him further. 

 “When it’s our responsibility to protect over 8,000 students, we take that extremely seriously and we understand that not everybody will agree with it,” Gribbin said. “But we’re not going to sit back and wait and hope nothing happens.”

“I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if we had the opportunity to protect our students and our staff and our community, and we didn’t,” he added.

 

Policy meeting

Trustees Michael Catalanotto, and Michael Saidens along with an attorney for the district, Steven Goodstadt, Superintendent Mark Secaur, among others, met at a prior policy meeting.

Officials reviewed policy with Goodstadt, and discussed certain areas to be updated. 

Saidens suggested the district could have parents sign a form noting they reviewed the school’s concussion policy rather than them hearing it in passing. Other policies for review included enforcement of nonresident students attending the district. Goodstadt recommended the district updates policy further, specifically proof of residency requirements, to make the policy more enforceable.

Officials agreed to bring in feedback from administrators and faculty before suggesting changes to the district’s social media policy between students and teachers

Secaur said he thinks the policy should set clear boundaries for students and teachers for what they can and can’t do. Saidens said social media should be used positively to highlight students, but acknowledged there was a possibility that contact between students and faculty could go down the wrong road. Saidens did not respond to a request for comment to further clarify his position.

The policy presently prohibits staff from posting “pictures, video or any other material that identifies students or provides any information that would be considered confidential” on social media sites “Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, VSCO, LinkedIn, Messenger, Pinterest, Yelp, Google, WordPress, YouTube, blogs, etc.” It also requires staff to keep their personal social media activities/accounts private from students.

Time-out rooms

The school board adopted a policy relating to a time-out rooms, which will be used in cases in which the “Committee on Special Education has made a recommendation that this type of behavior management approach would be appropriate.”

The rooms are meant to give students an opportunity to de-escalate and regulate their emotions, so they can return to instruction. The policy states the rooms are to be used “in conjunction with a therapeutic behavior management intervention” or in an emergency situation. The use of the rooms must be specified in the student’s individualized education program, which also needs to give direction on the maximum amount of time students can stay in the room, taking into account their age and needs.

Parents need to be notified prior to the rooms being used and must be shown the space upon request. The amount of time students are in the rooms will be carefully monitored to “ensure that a time-out room is not being used to the detriment of a student or student’s educational program.”

A room can never be locked, and a staff member must be able to see and hear the student.

Photo from Wikimedia Commons
By Carolyn Sackstein

Given the nationwide proliferation of violence in schools, the Smithtown Central School District Board of Education recently voted to vet and hire a private security firm to patrol the exterior perimeter of all schools with armed guards. 

Long Island schools from Greenport to Copiague have experienced threats of violence made by students. Following the Parkland, Florida, school shootings in 2018, some districts opted to provide armed security personnel, including Hauppauge, Miller Place and Mount Sinai. With an ongoing public debate over the most effective way to protect children in schools and public spaces, TBR News Media took to the streets of Port Jefferson village Saturday, Feb. 18, asking people for their opinions on armed guards in and around schools.

— Photos by Carolyn Sackstein

 

 

Gannon Lawley, Anchorage, Alaska

“I am against armed guards in almost all places, especially schools. It doesn’t strike me as the kind of thing that would be good for a school or a learning environment. It arises from an aversion to armed guards in general. It’s a hippy peace thing for me.”

 

 

 

 

 

Nicole Carhart & Hector Monell, West Islip

When asked about armed guards on school campuses Carhart said, “It depends. It is good for people to keep safe. You want to make sure they are not using it against others.”

Monell thought Smithtown’s decision was “a positive outcome.”

 

 

 

 

 

Joseph Vergopia, Manhattan

When asked to comment on Smithtown’s decision to put armed guards on campus, he responded, “That’s the stupidest idea I ever heard, because more guns on the street are just a ridiculous way to curb gun [violence].”

 

 

 

Jeremy Torres and Xiao Han Wu, Stony Brook

Jeremy Torres from Stony Brook village was with his wife, Xiao Han Wu, originally from Beijing, China, and young daughter. Torres said, “With today’s crazy environment, I would prefer police on the campus. As long as [private security] has proper training and qualifications and gun safety, I would trust that. You can’t just have anybody.”

Han Wu said, “Because I see a lot of news like shootings in the schools and all that and having a kid, that definitely makes me more concerned about the safety in schools. I feel comfortable, they put armed guards [on campus]. I also prefer police.”

 

Louis Antoniello, Terryville

“There are better ways to protect the school systems. [Examples would be] electronic locks on the schools, where you have to use a pass key to get in, electronic locks on the classroom doors and gymnasiums. If there is an issue in the school, where somebody does get in, the entire school can be locked down with kids and teachers in the classroom through the main office. They can just lock it down electronically. Nobody can get into the classrooms. Would you rather have more guns where now you’re getting into a gun fight on the street? Doesn’t matter if it is someone who has been trained to use a gun or not. If you look at the statistics and the percentages of how many times you hit with your first or second shot, those percentages are very low. Where are these bullets going? They could be going into the windows of the school. They could be going into neighbors’ houses. The best thing to do is spend your money on securing the building, and electronic locks are the way to go. You can also have security cameras all around with people watching the security videos. They can see who is coming on campus. You’re stopped at the door, they ask what you’re doing there, you’re on camera, you show your ID. You sit and wait to pick up your son or daughter. You can drop something off for them at security. That’s how you secure a building. Leaving the building open without electronic locks and just having people walking the perimeter with guns is not the way to go.”

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File photo by Rachel Shapiro

Smithtown Central School District recently made the decision to enhance security in its schools, which includes two high schools, three middle and seven elementary schools.

A decision to hire armed guards was announced in a Feb. 15 letter signed by Superintendent Mark Secaur and the Board of Education trustees.

“The safety and security of the students, faculty, staff and community members of the Smithtown Central School District has been, and will continue to be, a top priority,” the letter read.

It was stated that over time the district’s “security enhancements related to staffing, infrastructure, training, and operational protocols have evolved and improved.” The decision was made to “better protect the members of this school community.”

The letter said national news reports are reminders that “schools have occasionally been viewed as ‘soft’ targets and the scene of senseless tragedies caused by ‘active shooters.’”

“With this in mind and with a heavy heart,” the letter continued, “our district has made the decision to bolster our security detail by adding armed guards to the exterior perimeter of each of our schools to strengthen our ability to respond during a crisis, as well as to deter those who may seek to do harm.”

The superintendent and trustees said the security enhancement will improve response time in the case of an emergency in and around its buildings.

The district is in the early stages of the process, currently identifying security firms which will have to be vetted and approved by the Board of Education.

“The guards will be required to undergo multiple training sessions per year and will need to re-qualify through periodic performance based assessments to ensure they will perform at an optimal level if ever called upon,” the letter emphasized.

In addition, armed guards will work with the Suffolk County Police Department.

While the armed guards will be stationed throughout the school district, officials cannot “comment on specific details such as guard deployments, locations and working hours as it may compromise their safety and effectiveness.”

The superintendent and board members said in the letter that the guards will not be posted inside the buildings.

“This decision has not come lightly, but we believe that this is a necessary step to improve our approach to the safety and security of our students, faculty, staff and community members,” the letter concluded.

According to the district’s 2023-24 General Fund Budget Overview, $850,000 has been allocated for the proposal.

When TBR reached out to the district to ask if school officials could elaborate, a media spokesperson said, “The district is not providing any comments outside of the community letter.”

The Kings Park school district, which also is located within the Town of Smithtown, has permitted certain security guards employed in the district to be armed while on duty since 2018, according to Superintendent Tim Eagen. The district did not hire an outside armed security firm, and all of the security guards are retired law enforcement officers who carry law-enforcement issued firearms.

In a discussion thread about armed guards in the Smithtown school district on the Facebook group Smithtown Moms, there was overwhelming support of the proposal. While a few mothers said there have been instances that guards haven’t been a deterrent in past incidents in the country, many felt the decision was long overdue.

Members of the Facebook group Suffolk Progressives have been less supportive of the move and one member has started a Change.org petition, Remove Armed Guards from Smithtown Schools, with 110 signatures as at Feb. 22. Petition signers and Suffolk Progressives wrote that more needs to be done to fund mental health programs and ban the sale of assault weapons.

The Smithtown school district will hold its next board meeting March 14 at 7 p.m.

As part of the relocation plan, eight-graders were sent to Northport High School. File photo

Northport-East Northport school district trustees voted decisively 6-1 against arming its school guards with firearms after nearly nine months of intense debate.

More than 100 Northport parents, students and concerned residents attended the Nov. 28 board of education meeting at Northport High School where the community members were given one last opportunity to give their opinions on whether to hire armed security personnel in the wake of the Parkland, Florida, shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in February that killed 17 people. The majority of those who took to the mic to voice an opinion stood overwhelmingly against the proposition.

“The evidence is clear: If you put armed guards in our schools you are making the children in this community feel less safe, you will not deter crime, you are not avoiding a school shooting, and you will be escalating a dangerous situation not de-escalating it,” Greg Perles, of East Northport, said.

The evidence is clear: If you put armed guards in our schools you are making the children in this community feel less safe…”

— Greg Perles

Andrew Rapiejko, president of Northport-East Northport board of education, said district trustees have received an outpouring of emails from the community over the past several months, voicing their opinions on the issue of hiring armed security guards.

“I did note that some of the comments were kind of short and to the point, on quite a number of them I did note that people took a lot of time to write a number of paragraphs, not using a form letter but their feelings and describing their opinions, researching and looking at options one way or another,” he said. “I want to say I really appreciate that and thank you for that.”

David Stein, vice president of the school board, had put forth a proposal for the district to hire 10 armed security guards, one for each of the district’s buildings, for a trial period of 120 days with instruction to Superintendent Robert Banzer to provide an in-depth analysis of the program after 90 days for the board of education to review.

“That’s ridiculous, with all due respect,” trustee David Badanes said. “If there’s no incident in 120 days does it prove armed security guards work? We have many school districts that don’t have armed security guards and have not faced an issue. It proves nothing.”

That’s ridiculous, with all due respect.”

— David Badanes

Badanes said he was “touched” by emails a number of recent Northport graduates and students who, he said, spoke out unanimously against armed guards. He felt armed security personnel also negatively impact students of minority racial groups or low-income families and lead to an increased likelihood of arrests for low-level offenses such as disorderly conduct.

There are approximately five Suffolk County school districts, including neighboring Kings Park, that have moved forward with a decision to arm security personnel with firearms. Donna McNaughton, a Northport board member, said it was “the hardest decision I’ve ever had to make” but opposed doing the same.

“I am not comfortable as a member of a school board that I could craft an RFP, or proposal, and sanction how you could arm someone properly to protect students,” she said. “I cannot in good conscious put a weapon in a school on a person I cannot be confident is trained properly.”

If the district had moved to hire 10 armed guards, trustee Lori McCue said it would have cost the district approximately $450,000 for one full school year.

“I cannot in good conscious put a weapon in a school on a person I cannot be confident is trained properly.”

—Donna McNaughton

“So many people will say we cannot put a price on the safety of our students, and I 100 percent agree with you in theory,” McCue said. “Unfortunately, we sit up here every year at budget time and have to put a price on every single thing we do for our students. That is a very large number for something we cannot predict the outcome of.”

Stein, who has law enforcement background and is a retired lieutenant from New York Police Department, was the sole vote in support of the district hiring armed guards. The board member said his decision was based, in part, on learning that Suffolk County Police Department reported an average response time of five minutes to an emergency at the district’s Oct. 11 security forum and had never conducted a full-scale drill in any of the district’s buildings. One notable exception he said is Ocean Avenue Elementary School, which often has a police officer on site or less than a minute away, who knows the building and has drilled on site.

“As a board and district, how do we address that disparity between how different schools are being protected? How do we reconcile it? I don’t know that we can,” he said. “We have to protect our schools in some fashion now while lobbying Suffolk County for additional programs and support.”

I am just completely relieved that they decided to follow through, and after consideration they decided to vote no on the armed guards.”

— James Connor

Several parents asked the board to move forward to improve security by constructing security vestibules at each school building, ensure all doors are closed and armed at all times, trim hedges and bushes away from windows and entryways, ensure staff members are trained in first aid and tourniquet use, and make sure both teachers and students take lockdown drills seriously. Several Northport High School students had said their peers often laugh, chat and text on their phones during drills.

James Connor, a sophomore at Northport High School who advocated against armed guards at several board meetings, said he was relieved by the school board members decision.

“I am just completely relieved that they decided to follow through, and after consideration they decided to vote no on the armed guards,” he said. “Regarding school security, there are a lot of steps left to take, but in my opinion armed guards are not one of them.”

His sentiments were also echoed by his  mother, Amy — relief at the board’s decision.

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Northport sophomore James Connor speaks at the Nov. 8 board of education meeting. Photo by Kyle Barr

It has been months since the Northport-East Northport school district hosted a meeting asking for community input for armed guards, now the subject will finally be seeing a vote.

The Northport-East Northport school board voted 5-to-1 at its Nov. 8 meeting to move
forward with the vote for armed guards at its Nov. 28 meeting. Trustee Allison Noonan was the lone dissenter.

“I’m not a fan of taking too many more baby steps on this,” board Vice President David Stein said.

Armed guards are plagued by accidents and dangerous misuse of their weapons.”

— James Connor

The district hosted a public meeting in March, shortly after the Feb. 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, where the local community largely came out to support hiring armed personnel to protect its students. Since then, the district has hosted two public forums, one on Oct. 11
examining the pros and cons of armed guards that featured members of the Suffolk County Police Department, the Northport Police Department and the Asharoken Police Department. A second Nov. 1 meeting was held to discuss the emotional and psychological impact of armed guards with a panel composed of some of the district’s social workers, principals and health and wellness teachers.

As time has gone on, the uniform opinion of that original March meeting has fractured into the two camps of people who support and those against hiring armed guards. James Connor, a sophomore at Northport High School, spoke at the Nov. 8 meeting where he cited situations such as the recent shootings at both the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh and the Borderline Bar and Grill in Thousand Oaks, California, where security personnel and police were shot and killed by an active shooter.

“Armed guards are plagued by accidents and dangerous misuse of their weapons,” Connor said. “Guards aren’t a surefire way to resolve an active shooter scenario … Guns are not the answer.”

At most schools prevention is the trend rather than reaction.” 

— Nicole Raganella

East Northport resident Nicole Raganella, a professional therapist, said that without armed guards, the impetus and responsibility to protect students instead falls on the mental healthprofessionals in the district.

“At most schools prevention is the trend rather than reaction,” Raganella said. “It is your job to provide effective security, and if all these measures fail and a threat is active, are you prepared to tell staff and students that the responsibility is on them to defend themselves?”

School trustees raised questions about the costs associated with armed guards and whether they should wait to receive request for proposalsfrom companies before they move forward to vote. The board asked that Superintendent Robert Banzer and his staff provide the district with additional information on the estimated costs of hiring armed guards as well as the type of guards the district would plan to hire before the Nov. 28 meeting.

“There’s a big difference between us voting on hiring [Smithtown-based Arrow Security] guards, which you might find at any movie theater, and the kind of guard I would envision if I were going to do this here,” Stein said.

“Some would argue having armed guards on campus increases students stress.”

—Allison Noonan

Noonan said the school should not have a conversation about armed guards without citing the social and emotional impact of having those personnel in or near the school.

“Some would argue having armed guards on campus increases students stress,” she said. “I would say you cannot extrapolate one from the other, and you can’t talk about one without the other.”

Noonan requested that the board also vote to discuss creating a committee or public task force that could discuss the emotional impacts of the school’s increasing security measures on students and their overall feeling of safety at the Nov. 28 meeting. When that failed, the board voted to discuss such a proposition at its Dec. 13 board meeting. Noonan was the lone vote against holding the discussion on that date, feeling action was needed soon.

The next board meeting will be held Nov. 28 at the William J. Brosnan Administrative Building on Laurel Avenue. Public session starts at 7 p.m.

All of the Northport-East Northport board of education’s agendas can be found online here starting a few days prior to the meeting. 

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Law enforcement representatives from Suffolk County Police Department and local police departments discuss armed security personnel in schools at a Northport board of education meeting. Photo by Kyle Barr

The Northport-East Northport school district has been taking it slow and steady in considering hiring armed guards for its school buildings. The board of education is in the process of soliciting professional opinions from local police and security advisers to determine the path forward for its schools.

About 70 people filed into a public meeting hosted by the school board Oct. 11, which included members of the Suffolk County Police Department, Northport Police Department, Asharoken Police Department, the school district’s retained attorneys from Ingerman Smith LLP, the district’s insurance provider New York Schools Insurance Reciprocal and the district’s security adviser to answer the board and the community questions about the potential impact of hiring armed security guards.

“There is a lot of interest about this throughout the county,” said Suffolk County Police Department Inspector Michael Romagnoli, the commanding officer of the department. “All are debating this topic at similar levels.”

The board hosted a previous meeting March 1 where the community came out in droves to voice support for the district hiring armed guards, though when asked whether he would want armed guards Leonard Devlin, the district’s security consultant, said he would prefer not to.

It would be my recommendation to not have armed guards in our schools.’

— Leonard Devlin

“It would be my recommendation to not have armed guards in our schools,” Devlin said. “If we were to have armed security personnel, the officer would only respond if there was an active shooter, not if there was a physical confrontation with a student, teacher or of any nature.”

The district said it has upgraded multiple security measures since the start of the year. Devlin said the district hired 12 new unarmed guards, which now totals 30 guards who patrol campus grounds during the school day from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. The district also purchased six new security vehicles to complement an existing six, which should arrive in about a month.

Security vestibules are already installed or close to being installed for all schools except Bellerose Avenue Elementary, Ocean Avenue Elementary and Northport Middle School, which the security consultant said would be completed in the future as part of the district’s ongoing $40 million capital bond project. The district said it has installed 30 new cameras this year for a new total of 400 throughout the buildings, though these are monitored sparingly throughout the day and in the late-night hours, Devlin said.

One of the biggest questions raised surrounding the need for armed guards in schools is whether local police response time is fast enough to deal with an armed assailant. Romagnoli said their response time for local cars was four to five minutes, while Northport Police Chief William Ricca said their response time was three to four minutes. The inspector said that a school shooting comes in as a Priority 0, the highest priority, the same as if a call came in that an officer was shot. Romagnoli said since the 1999 Columbine High School massacre in Colorado cops are trained to enter an active shooter situation immediately upon arriving at the scene.

“Our involvement in the schools has increased tremendously within the last five years, our number of school incidents in the 2nd Precinct has gone up 50 percent, and the officers have more familiarity with the schools just from their daily patrols,” SCPD Deputy Inspector Matthew McCormick said.

Columbine was a long time ago, and now the police are pulled in so many different directions with what to prioritize around Long Island.”

— David Stein

Board Vice President David Stein said he was concerned it was not possible for every member of every police department to be intimate with the district’s six separate school facilities.

“Columbine was a long time ago, and now the police are pulled in so many different directions with what to prioritize around Long Island,” Stein said.

Romagnoli said the 2nd Precinct has one school resource officer assigned to cover all school districts in the area, not accounting for the other police officers who sometimes take up SRO duties part time on top of their normal police work. The SRO is responsible for being a liaison from the district to the police and for safety and crime prevention in schools.

While some members of the board questioned if guards should be on the premises for longer than regular school hours, to protect kids in after-school activities and sports, but Devlin said it came down to money. He estimated armed guards working at approximately $15 an hour for an eight-hour day would cost the district $208,200, if one guard for each of the district’s nine school campuses were allotted. Though Devlin added if the district wants total coverage for the day, including an hour break for each guard, it would have to hire another three to cover them on their breaks, adding up to just under $400,000.

Police representatives admitted armed guards and police arriving on scene of an emergency could present other problems. There is potential for a “blue on blue” situation, where two armed responders potentially confront each other. Current school security recently changed their uniform to be a bright gold color, but there is no consistency in the uniform between armed presences in other schools. Romagnoli said because of these inconsistencies it’s important the district keep a clear line of communication to the police departments and for dispatch to know of the armed presence inside the school.

We routinely drill in active shooter response and deliberately build those scenarios into our drills, and I can say we do have a discharge from one officer to another officer. We would rather that happen in training than out in the world.”

— Michael Romagnoli

“Our protocol is the uniformed officer responding is in charge,” Romagnoli said. “We routinely drill in active shooter response and deliberately build those scenarios into our drills, and I can say we do have a discharge from one officer to another officer. We would rather that happen in training than out in the world.”

Those on the panel representing the district’s liability concerns said insurance would cover the district in most cases should an armed guard be present. John Peppard, the senior vice president of NYSIR, the school’s insurance handler, said the only time the school might have a problem is if the guards, as school employees, went rogue in some way.

Local resident Denise Schwartz said despite assurances from local police departments promising prioritized response, the comments made by the panel members did not instill much optimism, especially considering the presence of just one SCPD SRO and the little time the district monitors the security cameras.

“Several things they said made me feel even less safe,” Swartz said.

For Northport resident Tammie Topel, who said she’s still on the fence about hiring armed guards, the meeting did little to eliminate the catch 22 inherent in the decision.

“I think that it opens up whether you do, or you don’t, you’re either not indemnified, or there’s going to be a lawsuit, or there might be an accidental shooting,” Topel said. “There’s 400 cameras that are not being monitored at all times, so what’s the sense of wasting that money on cameras … they should be monitored if that’s what we’re going to be using them for.”

The district will be hosting another workshop Nov. 1 where it will discuss the emotional and psychological impact of having armed guards in schools. On Nov. 8, the board will discuss whether it will put the item on the agenda for vote at a subsequent meeting.

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Commack Superintendent Donald James presented the district's 2018-19 budget draft. File photo by Greg Catalano

As Commack school officials propose nearly $300,000 in additional security measures and upgrades for next year, many parents came forward looking for the answer to one question: “What about armed guards?”

“Let’s get real — let’s make this part of the discussion,” resident Timothy Griffin said at the March 8 board of education meeting. “It makes no sense to me to not allow retired police officers that you currently have employed as security guards to carry firearms.”

Richard Schramm, director of facilities, said that Commack school district currently employs 23 security guards, most of which are assigned to specific individual buildings. A smaller number are designated as patrol guards along with two security supervisors, according to Schramm, who roam the district throughout the school day.

It makes no sense to me to not allow retired police officers that you currently have employed as security guards to carry firearms.”
— Timothy Griffin

Anastasia Vetter told board members they should be making increased security a priority over mental health monitoring.

“As much as you try to incorporate all these teachings about anxiety and how to handle children with problems, there’s always going to be one you’re not going to get,” she said. “And I don’t know if my child or someone else’s child is going to have to pay the price.”

Ian Chaikin asked why the school district is only now battening down its hatches in the event of a shooter situation.

“Parkland was tragic and the most recent but what have you been doing since the first shooting, or the second or third?” Chaikin said. “You guys gotta get on the ball.”

Another resident called for armed guards as well as locked vestibules at all eight buildings in the district, locked parking lot gates and metal detectors upon entering the school.

School administrators have built in nearly $300,000 of security upgrades to the district’s 2018-19 drafted budget. Schramm said there is $263,500 of remaining bond funds in order to install new classroom lock sets at Commack Middle School and Commack High School. The proposal also includes pulling $15,000 from the reserves to upgrade the security staff’s radios and $15,000 in the annual budget for upgrade the district’s security vehicles.

Parkland was tragic and the most recent but what have you been doing since the first shooting, or the second or third?”
— Ian Chaikin

Superintendent Donald James assured the speakers that the District Security Connector Group will be formed in upcoming weeks, consisting of Commack security personnel, teachers, administrators, board trustees, two parents for each grade level, and two community members-at-large (residents without school-aged children) in addition to the superintendent himself. This group will be charged with crafting a request-for-proposal to hire an outside agency to do a comprehensive security review of the district and consider the community’s suggestions — including whether to hire armed guards.

The funds to hire an outside security company to review the school district’s current practices and provide a list of suggestions is built into the facilities portion of the 2018-19 draft budget, according to Schramm.